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TRANSCRIPT: MTA Chair and CEO Lieber Appears on WABC-7's Up Close with Bill Ritter

Updated January 23, 2022 5:30 p.m.

MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber appeared on WABC-7's Up Close with Bill Ritter to discuss safety in the subway system, crime and homelessness.
A transcript of the interview appears below.
Bill Ritter: The Chairman and CEO of the MTA, Janno Lieber. Mr. Lieber welcome, once again, to Up Close. 
Janno Lieber: Good to be with you.
Ritter: I'm going to wish you happy New Year. But it's been a bizarre first three weeks of the year. And I know before we get into some of the questions that we have to deal with, and tackle to solve these problems. I know this has affected you. And we had to – when we saw that press conference of you talking about this murder, you were clearly angry and affected and emotionally moved by all this.
Lieber: I was, Bill. Because I am a subway rider. I'm a lifelong New Yorker and I speak for riders. And riders justifiably are saying this can't happen. We cannot walk into this essential public place that all New Yorkers not only use by choice, but so many have to use, and feel threatened and feel like we're being placed at risk. Now fortunately, these crazy episodes that have done so much to change the public debate and focus on subway safety are not that frequent. But the important thing is when they do happen, because there's so tragic and catastrophic, like what happened to Michelle Alyssa Go, they completely affect people's comfort level and willingness to ride the system. We have to do something about it. 
Ritter: And you know, I think for many people, you raise a lot of issues in that short statement you just had. But you have to – one of the issues you just raised was that Michelle Go was like anybody else. In fact, in her spare time, she worked serving the homeless, and she was killed. There's a lot of safety procedures. We'll talk about that. But it says to people who ride the subways every day and have to ride the subways to get to work as you say, if it can happen to Michelle Go, it can happen anyone. 
Lieber: Right Bill, you got it. Right in the middle of our subway system, right in the middle of our city. What could be more the center of the city and of the world then Times Square? For this to happen is just unthinkable, unacceptable. I called it unconscionable. There are no words, we have to do something about it. And the fact that Michelle Alyssa Go was, you know, such a model New Yorker in so many ways. I did not know her, but I've heard a lot about her. Makes it all the more urgent that we represent New Yorkers, when we talk about this issue, and we represent riders, that's my job. 
Ritter: Let's talk about the riders first on the micro level. And then we'll talk about the macro level, how do you deal with crime? The micro level, I urge my children, I urge everyone I know to stand away from the platform at all times. Don't look around, say where's the train coming? Put your back against the wall, grab some wall is what I tell my kids. And I think that is not paranoia. I think it's a real safety measure for me. 
Lieber: Yeah, listen, I don't want to tell people that they should stand on subway platforms and feel like they're, you know, they're in threat of their lives. But everybody should stand away from the edge of the platform. That's why they're those fluorescent yellow tactile strips. It's not only for, you know, the sight impaired, but it's also for all of us, just to be reminded to get away from the edge. So, everybody needs to do what they need to do. But there's no – my goal is there's no reason people should feel that level of nervousness or risk when they're using the subway system. We can't accept that. 
Ritter: Right. Well, but we should be aware of it. And I know I am, as a parent. And as a news person, we see it all the time. And yes, it does not happen every day. But it's one of those times it's so catastrophic, it stays with you. Why not, I ask myself all the time, especially in this situation. And I'm not alone, you know, why not have these so-called platform screen doors, like they do – they appear in other cities and some foreign countries? I know it's very expensive, but why not have them there so when the train stops those doors open, when the train leaves those doors close? 
Lieber: Honestly, in fairness, this is not a matter of cost. There are some physical constraints. And again, we are taking yet another look at this, it has been studied over the years at the MTA. There are some physical constraints that are real, that putting those kinds of platform doors up also would affect our ability to maintain ADA accessibility, literally the structure of our very old 100-year-old stations don't accommodate it. And there's some real ventilation issues, how will we ventilate, for fire code safety and for human comfort in that event? But we're studying it yet again. And we are interested in seeing whether there are opportunities to install it, especially in some of the more, the busier stations where you get a little more crowded. But we're going to look at it again. 
Ritter: Right. I don't want to spend too much time on this because I know it's a very expensive $2 billion proposal. But you could have smaller gates, not all the way up, but at least maybe waist level?
Lieber: All those things are going to be looked at, Bill.
Ritter: Okay. 
Lieber: You know, we have to consider all options. 
Ritter: Okay, very good. Let's move on. Let's talk about how you solve crime down there. How many cops are there now? There were many more that were brought in the last surge of crime last year. Have they stayed there? If they're staying there, do you have to have more? 
Lieber: Yeah. Listen, I honestly in fairness to the NYPD, I don't think that this is a matter of the number of cops, but I have been talking about for a little while now, is riders want to see the cops in the areas where they feel a little more vulnerability. And that's the platform's and on the trains. So, I'm working with the PD and the new police commissioner, Keechant Sewell has been great. And Mayor Adams has been great, to talk about how the existing 3,000 [2,400] plus NYPD cops who are assigned to the transit system are actually, where they're located, and how are they present? In fairness, the mayor has stepped up and the police commissioner stepped up and said not only are we using the cops who were in Transit, but the cops who are at surface level doing patrol are also going to come down into the system as well. So, those are all good things. But people want to see the police, who are in the system in the areas where they feel vulnerable. That's the on the trains and on the platforms right now. 
Ritter: And so that will continue and hopefully maybe improve. What's your relationship with the new mayor? Have you talked to him about all of this? 
Lieber: I’ve talked to him several times. I talked to him long before this tragic incident a week ago. He's a former transit cop and he said, you know, months ago to me, I want to, you know, really increase safety in the subway system. So, this tragic incident has highlighted something he and I were already talking about some time ago.
Ritter: Let me talk to you about the homeless situation in train service. We're going to talk to Christine Quinn, former City Council speaker and now CEO and president of WIN, the women's homeless shelter about dealing with the homeless problem in general around the city, but let's just talk about the subways. Because, you know, the truth is, it has changed. You have people sleeping in the cars, and they take they take up a lot of room and no one wants to be around them. You also have people sleeping in the station. What do you do about it? And it's a social service problem, I know.
Lieber: It is really a social service issue. The responsibility for providing services to the homeless and hopefully getting them out of the subway into more appropriate housing, is the city's. And they are very much, you know, I think in in the new administration, they're going to take a more proactive approach to that. That means putting more outreach workers and providing the homeless with attractive alternatives. So, it's not just come to a shelter where they might feel at risk for safety or COVID or otherwise. But come into this program that might and will hopefully lead to permanent housing. But we have a special problem with a relatively small number of mentally ill homeless, but their impact on the subway system and on the ridership, and God forbid on safety is disproportionate. So, Governor Hochul has said even though this is principally a city responsibility, she's going to develop a team of mental health workers and professionals who are going to be combining medical people and housing people and other service workers to aggressively deal with this population of mentally ill homeless who are you know, more and more present in the subways. Those are the folks who are affecting riders’ sense of safety, and also sense of comfort in the system most.
Ritter: Unfortunately, we have less than a minute left and you can talk about this for an hour. But ridership still about 50 percent of what it was pre pandemic. Some of that was because of the surge impact of the pandemic recently. There's no question about that, fewer people coming in. Where are you? What's your hope? What's the goal? How do you get people back? 
Lieber: Listen, Bill, we were before Omicron, we were very much on track to get back to a very strong level. We were at 60 percent of pre COVID ridership. These are weekday numbers. And more important, on the weekends and nights and discretionary periods, we were at 70 plus percent of pre COVID. That shows when people have somewhere to go, they are comfortable, they were comfortable taking transit. We've dropped a little bit, but we're now coming back as Omicron has stopped surging. And I think that we're on track. But we got to deal with this – the safety issue, and make people feel comfortable and provide the best service. That's what I worry about every day. 
Ritter: Janno, it is a lot about perception, as you know, and there was a perception for a long time, why were you acting chairman and CEO of MTA. In your final 10 seconds, congratulations. You've been now named permanent chairman and CEO of the MTA. Congratulations. Any different feelings?
Lieber: Listen, this is – whether it comes in at a difficult time, but this is a dream job for a lifelong New Yorker who grew up in New York in the 70s and started riding the bus to school when I was six. So, this is it. I'm ready to serve.