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TRANSCRIPT: MTA Chair and CEO Lieber Appears on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show

Updated January 27, 2022 7:30 p.m.

MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber appeared on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show to discuss passenger safety, challenges brought on by the Omicron surge, ridership, storm preparations, and capital projects, and take listener calls. 

A transcript of the interview appears below. 

Brian Lehrer: MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber, welcome to WNYC.
MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber: Great to be with you, Brian.
Lehrer: And listeners we can take your calls as well. What's one thing that you think would make getting around on mass transit better.  (212) 433-WNYC for Janno Lieber.  (212) 433-9692 or tweet at Brian Lehrer there.  But to start on some good news, Mr. Lieber, do I see correctly, that all of subway lines are running again after Omicron staffing shortages, which lead to suspend some lines? Is staffing back to normal?
Lieber: Yeah. Thank you for making that point. We had a, you know, we had a blip with crew availability, just like the rest of the economy. We had a hit from Omicron. But we did a very targeted reduction suspension of a couple lines: the , the , the , which overlap with other lines. Every one of our 472 station was always operational. So, nobody was ever stranded. And we're now back in action on every line on every service.
Lehrer: Also, on the pandemic; we'll probably get this, so maybe I'm preempting a caller. But I get called, every time we have a COVID-in-the-city kind of segment, from people complaining of mask-wearing on the subway, including when the car is crowded, is less than universal and not well enforced.  So, what's the reality that you're willing to acknowledge? And is there anything new that you as a new head of the system are doing about it?
Lieber: So, you know, we're actually back up to a pretty very high level; 97% in our most recent survey of mask wearing.  Listen, I ride a lot. There's no secret there's frequently one person; it gets a little worse as you get later into the night, who's not wearing a mask? But the overwhelming evidence Brian, is that mass transit has never been a vector of transmission of COVID.  And all riders, in the off hours and during the weekend, they're riding even more then they're riding on the weekdays. So, they are expressing a high level of confidence that the system is safe, and it's a good idea to ride mass transit.
Lehrer:  Do you have actual data on COVID transmission in subway cars or Metro-North or Long Island cars or railroad cars for that matter? Or is it just too hard to know, and you fall back on saying the cars are cleaned and the ventilation is good?
Lieber: So, the data that I'm talking about is based on what we've seen in Europe and Asia, which have returned to much higher levels of mass transit usage and those places they've studied whether, whether mass transit has ever been affected. And obviously the cleaning of the cars has made people feel very much more comfortable coming back to mass transit.  And so, we have contended, with federal support, that every car gets cleaned every day. And the stations get cleaned twice a day – disinfected – I should say and it's helping us to bring our ridership back.
Lehrer: Stanley in Morningside Heights, you're on WNYC with the CEO and Chair of the MTA Janno Lieber. Hi Stanley.
Caller [Stanley in Morningside Heights]: Thank you for taking my call. I'm calling about the homeless crisis. I have seen more homeless, aggressive homeless, clearly mentally ill homeless on the cars when I take my kids to school every morning. Sometimes they spread out on the seat. Sometimes they come up to you and it feels aggressive, and it feels dangerous.  I know this is a citywide issue, but I'm asking you,  what practical steps are being taken towards a solution? I still have yet to see any mental health crisis workers or police officers in large numbers. So, I'm asking you what is being done to deal with this clear problem?
Lieber: You know, Stanley, thank you for your question. And we're really focused on this issue. Number one, the first step was taken by Mayor Adams and by the new Police Commissioner when he said, and it's actually happening, I’m not sure it's reached every line.  But they're moving police officers; not adding to the number. But they're moving police officers, as I had been asking for a while, onto the platforms, onto the train. The new Police Commissioner and the new head of the Transit Bureau have said that this is the foundation of their policing strategy with the transit cops, on trains and on platforms.  A big step forward yesterday, having cops on platforms, which is a big plus, enabled a rider to step off the train at Times Square and tell a cop that they thought that somebody on the train had a gun. The cops intervened and they arrested somebody with a loaded nine-millimeter pistol. So, the cops on the trains, cops on the platform is the first step. But your question also goes to the bigger issue of mental health services. And both the state and the city and the mayor affirmed it yesterday. Again, the state and the city have said they're going to bring a lot more mental health professionals into the subway to try to reach those people who have mental health issues, and who are using the system as a hotel, or, they have nowhere else to go to get them out of the system.  That has not unfolded fully yet, you're absolutely right. But the commitment from the Governor and the Mayor is right there and we're counting on it coming through. We need, what you're describing does need to change and we're very much in support of your viewpoint.
Lehrer:  And as a follow up before the MTA Board meeting yesterday, I mentioned this in the intro. The Manhattan Borough President and all of the borough’s council members sent you a letter asking for barriers for subway tracks.  Something that could not only prevent the horrific crimes of people being pushed onto the tracks, but also accidental falls; not to mention drop phones and such. And from my understanding you've studied this, and you've decided it's not feasible for most stations. I saw some other press reports that said you're open to a pilot program. So, tell everybody right now, where are you on that request?
Lieber: Yeah, and honestly, I understand politicians want to get noticed.  But the MTA, long before the Michelle Go incident, has been studying this because it's a real idea, and something that we had to study for safety and other reasons. So, we look at every station. We have a three-thousand-page report that includes analyzing the engineering at every station. There are serious challenges to installing platform doors.  Brian, you know, as an old New Yorker, we have different cars. We have three different subway systems that were combined historically. We have different cars all over the system with doors in different places, that’s one thing. The platforms, in many cases, can't support the additional load. The ADA access for wheelchairs, because of platform width, is an issue. But that said, we found, depending on, you know,  a lot of variables. Forty to one-hundred stations where platform doors are possible. And we're now going to the next step, to study exactly how that could be done, because we would like to explore a pilot. I am disappointed that the Manhattan Borough President, who was the Health Committee Chair of the City Council for years, is acting like the MTA, which has already, long before he got interested in doing a three-thousand-page study he was the chair of the Mental Health Committee.  And what was going on, when they spent billions of dollars on mental health, that left us with the conditions we're seeing in the system? We are asking the politicians not to try to make hay out of this issue, but to work with the MTA for real solutions based on engineering reality. We can't click our heels together and wish away.
Does that mean you agree with the New York Post editorial today that says basically, barriers are a stupid, expensive idea?  What we need to deal with is mentally ill people in the subway?
Lieber: You know what I'm interested in, I do think we need to deal with mentally ill people in the subway. I'm interested in immediate solutions that improve the conditions for our riders. That's what I'm about,  safety and the rider experience. That doesn't mean though, that we're not going to keep studying and try to move forward on this idea of platform barriers and other safety enhancements. But they're going to take some time. So my focus first has to be on what's going on now that affects the riders, and the safety of our ridership.
Lehrer:  I think this next caller might have a whole other reason to be in favor of barriers on the platform. Sasha in Manhattan, you're on WNYC with Janno Lieber, head of the MTA. Hello.
Caller [Sasha from Manhattan]: Hi. Thanks, Brian. Chairman Lieber, as you know, the New York City subway is far behind on accessibility. Barely 25% of stations have free access and for wheelchair users like me, but also older adults, families with strollers, etc. and other cities like Chicago and Boston, with systems that are as old or far ahead, let alone features those other riders with disabilities needs like disability of hearing, vision or cognition. I want to recognize that you keep, Accessibility Officer Arroyo and Board Member Calise, have been shifting elevator construction into a higher gear and with those new elevators that are coming online, that is a big win. So, thank you for that.
But I have an ongoing issue that's really a safety issue. That's about elevators that constantly go out of service, even when you build new ones. And that's not treated with urgency and severity. So, for instance, last week I was at 14th Street. I get almost to work. I’m three elevator rides in and I get almost up to the surface and boom, the elevator is out. Getting me from just the mezzanine, from the, you know, the station up to the sidewalk.  And there's just a little paper sign; there's no work going on. There are no announcements, nothing that could have told me further up the line, and, I’m stranded. And at that point, it's really a safety issue, not just an inconvenience, because my choice to get upstairs is either we could call the FDNY, that I know from experience, that's the thing they do, if I go to the station booth, I can try to find someone to carry me up the stairs. And it's not just frustrating – it’s demeaning. And it’s, you know; I have places to be, and I have to get to work and there's no recognition. So, I guess what I'm asking is: a station, when the elevator goes out, is really offline for people with disabilities. And it's really dangerous for anybody who needs that accessibility access, like for parents with strollers, who have to end up carrying them up the stairs.
Lehrer: So Sasha, let me get a response. You hear that issue Mr. Lieber obviously?
Yeah. And I recognize Sasha's voice and he's been a strong advocate for accessibility. I appreciate the recognition, that we're building elevators and making the subway system ADA accessible, faster than ever before, and it's something I'm passionate about. The system is for everybody. It's for people with mobility impairments. It's for families with strollers, it's for older people who can't get up and down the stairs the way they used to. And we've got to make it better. Sasha is part of that, pretty much part of that effort. Here's what I would say, on the you know, the maintenance of elevators. The new ones that we're building, we're making it part of the contract that the builder is responsible. And they don't get paid if the elevator isn't available, if it's not operable, if it's broken more than a very small percentage of the time. So, we're trying to solve the problem that Sasha is describing by building it into the contract. The second is we've got to get the exists. You know, our customer service operation has to be close.  What Sasha's describing, we need a faster, you know, communication. We do have elevator and escalator status on our website. But we have to do better. If Sasha is experiencing it when, no one should go through what Sasha described, getting all the way through the system, and then being frustrated at the final end.  And so, I'm very sympathetic. But the one thing I would say is, the other piece of this, we're proud that the whole bus system is accessible. And we've got to you know, buses are serving a huge portion of the city. It's an equity issue.  We’ve got to make the bus system faster, so that people with mobility issues can use the bus and know they're going to get somewhere fast. A lot of the city, you know, not as much access to the rail system. We need to make buses better for everybody.
Lehrer: Sasha, for you as a transit, you know, people with disabilities advocate, with respect to transit, do you have any take on the barriers for the platforms? I see that's being raised as a disability issue. I don't think relevant to wheelchairs, but other kinds of disabilities like being sight impaired?
Caller [Sasha in Manhattan]: Absolutely. So for people with impairments, I'm so admiring and amazed that they are able to use the New York City subway and it seems terrifying. And when I was fortunate to go to Tokyo a couple of years ago and I thought, oh, wow, this can really work. And it was kind of a real mind shift. And I thought this is possible. And I would love to see that in New York.
Lehrer: Thank you very much. On the platform barriers, but it also raises a larger issue. Mr. Lieber to the extent that it's the cost that would be a barrier. Can we talk about the recent report comparing the MTA operating costs to those in other cities? It's not apples to apples in all cases, I understand, but the MTA comes out lower in efficiency, higher in cost, than many other transit systems. So, do you accept those numbers? And what are the main drivers of those differences?
Lieber: Listen, I accept them, and I actually viewed them as a challenge to the MTA. We need to be able to deliver more at the same costs. I think everyone agrees about that. We have some special challenges. You talk about apples to apples; operating a 24-hour system means there are all kinds of implications: we have a really old car fleet, Brian, and the maintenance of that old equipment and the other old equipment in the system is also part of the inefficiency. But there are some things that we have to attack.  Our, you know, our availability of our workforce. We're getting fewer days per year out of our MTA workforce, who are great, and we love them – and they're great, great professionals. But that has been a trend that I think we need to focus on. Workers’ Comp is getting more and more expensive. There are things that we can do to work with the legislature and others to try to make us more efficient.  And I accept those numbers and view them as a challenge.
Lehrer: The other big MTA financing news just recently, our listeners, some of them know this, some of them don't, that the agency got its largest grant ever from the federal government this month. $6 billion,  on top of smaller grants, earlier during the pandemic. Does that make up for the drop in ridership or what's the picture for the agency's finances when that runs up?
Lieber: Thank you for the question because it is important. The $6 billion was part of the three bills that Congress did during COVID. That included things for, you know, businesses and individuals and renters, all that COVID relief money. One thing went in transit operations, that had been lost ridership and lost money, because of COVID. We got $14 billion out of those three bills, which is great, but it only carries us a few years, Brian, because as you remember, at the height of the pandemic, we were losing $200 million dollars a week.  We were running all service for essential workers right through the pandemic, so everybody would be able to get the hospitals and grocery stores and pharmacies and so on. So, the money is going to run out; that COVID relief money, in a couple of years.  And we need to work with the legislature and the governor, to find new recurring revenue, because ridership is probably not going to come 100% back. And we need to, you know, it's an equity issue, as I always say. The transit system, we found out during COVID, is like police and fire and sanitation. It's an essential service and we need to fund it that way, rather than having it totally on the backs of the riders. So, I'm looking for the legislature and others to help us solve that problem in the next couple of years.
Lehrer: How important is congestion pricing to drive into Manhattan business districts, for the long-term financing of the MTA and do you actually have a start date for that yet?
Lieber: Yeah. So, congestion pricing is, as everybody knows, it's charging a special toll into the central business district of Manhattan. Yes, we need the money, from congestion pricing, which is a few years off, has been assigned to the capital program, which is what we use to buy new subway cars and rebuild the system and create new lines and so on and so on. But congestion pricing is a good policy for a lot of reasons. We need vehicles, that need to be in the central business district, to be able to get around. That's buses and emergency vehicles and paratransit vehicles -- for people with disabilities. Those need to be able to get around and they can't move around now because of congestion. We also need to deal with air quality because of the impact on climate change and get rid of congestion that way. So, there are a lot of good policy reasons for congestion pricing. We are on schedule, per what the federal government is inspiring of us, to satisfy federal environmental law before we implement it.  We're on schedule to get the environmental review done by the end of 2022, this year, and then we will be actually building it out and starting to charge tolls in 2023. The actual tolls are going to be determined by this special board that the legislature created.  And that group is going to be selected and impaneled sometime in the spring, in all probability of this year.  And then they will figure out what exactly the tolls will be and will start to implement the system.  You know mass transit is the environmental solution. We are the antidote to climate change and congestion pricing was part of that.
Lehrer: This is WNYC FM HD and AM New York. WNJT 88.1 FM Trenton. WMJP 88.5 Sussex.  WNJY 89.3 Netcong and WNJO 90.3 Toms River. We are in New York and New Jersey public radio. At 11 o'clock, a few more minutes with Janno Lieber, the Chair and CEO of the MTA and Kenneth in East New York. You're on WNYC.  Hi, Kenneth.
Caller [Kenneth in East New York]: Hey, good morning and thank you for taking my call. I like to ask a question to the CEO of MTA. Is there anything that can be done with the  train and dearth or the lack of trains on the  train? And this has been happening way before the COVID pandemic. I've waited at Canal Street or West Fourth Street that have seen three, four, even sometimes five  trains have passed by before you see a   train going to Brooklyn. And then when it's coming in the station, it is packed. Those  trains that come before them, hardly anybody is on them. And especially during this time of this COVID pandemic you know, you get the heebie jeebies about you know, being on tight and close to people. Those trains going to Brooklyn are usually packed and then they cut back the service. When is the  train rider going to get some love and respect finally from the MTA? And give us a handful of trains during the rush hour. I mean, can you increase or give us a few extra trains?
Lehrer: And I could tell you, as someone at the other end of the line that people from Upper Manhattan have the same question as you just posed from East New York. And if so, Mr. Lieber, go ahead.
Lieber: Okay. You know, I all I got to say is, East New York's entitled to some love, number one. Because that is you know, that is a transit intensive community with a lot of folks who rely on mass transit. They were essential workers, they rode more people in Manhattan and in more affluent precincts, right through the pandemic. So, what Ken is talking about, you know, you, I'm right with you. Right now, I just checked the app we got six minutes between  trains, but what Kenneth is describing, I think, is attributable in part to the problems we had with crew shortages in the last portion of the pandemic, dating back to last summer. We didn't hire anybody Kenneth, during you know, when we didn't know if we were going to get money from Washington, if we're going to be able to keep running service. It was, so, we didn't hire people, people retired, and we were short of train operators and conductors. Unfortunately, we don't always get to choose where those train operators and conductors go. It's kind of part of our union agreements, and we were especially short on the  train. So, Kenneth is not wrong. We were definitely running less   train service than we want to. And it is a, you know, it's something now that we are getting our workforce back, that deserves more attention and that I hope that Kenneth will start to feel that there's more  service than there was during the last year or so of the pandemic.
Lehrer: Those  trains go through some of the city's Blackest neighborhoods as well. Residential – also have tended to be disproportionately to be both affected by COVID and to be essential workers. And so, it's yet another way that there was disparate impact from the pandemic. In this case flowing through the MTA.
Lieber: Yeah, no. You're not wrong, Brian. And all I’m going to say is that we're actually doing signal replacement on huge portions of the Eighth Avenue line, right into Brooklyn. Because we want to run more trains on that line, because it's important to Central Brooklyn and Upper Manhattan and our essential worker and low-income communities. So, we want to run more trains, more reliable service. We're redoing all the signals. That's a major investment, but no question that that has got to be a priority. That is a transit dependent community, both ends of that line.
Lehrer: I know you got to go in a minute. Give us your take on Governor Hochul’s Interborough Express proposal, transportation via rail between Brooklyn and Queens, without having to go through Manhattan? Are you for this? Why isn't the Bronx included as some people have asked? And how is it different from the BQX that Mayor de Blasio is proposing to run along the Brooklyn, Queens waterfront?
Lieber: Okay, so number one, you know, Governor Hochul has been great to work with because she's passionate about transit. The reason she got, this was an MTA study that we were doing. She got excited about it because it connects some both low-income communities and especially transit communities that are transit deserts. Where they don't really have access to the rail systems conveniently. You know, East Flatbush especially, Maspeth, Middle Village, whole swaths of Brooklyn and Queens that don't really connect to the rail system, would be connected by this new IBX, Interborough Express System. How, you know, it is, you talk about transit equity, all those people who don't you know, who don't have access to the subway system, now would be be connecting to 17 lines as you move north south with new line. How's it different than the system that de Blasio proposed? You know that system went on the Brooklyn, Queens waterfront, which is already pretty developed. And not every space but generally pretty affluent. This connects communities like East New York, like East Flatbush, communities of color, communities of, you know, low-income residents, to the broader opportunities in jobs, education, everything New York has to offer. So, that's why we love it and it's why the Governor who's focused on transit equity a lot. The other thing Brian, not to be overlooked is it uses an existing right of way. And we love that because my motto is let's get more transit out of the infrastructure we have. Sometimes you have to build a new tunnel like in the Second Avenue subway, but let's get more out of the infrastructure we have. We're doing it in the Bronx, you mentioned the Bronx. The Bronx is actually, not being excluded. They're going first. Because we took the line, the Hell Gate line in the Bronx, it's now only used by Amtrak, 25 trains a day. And we're putting 150 Metro-North trains a day there, so people in Co-Op City and Parkchester can go to get to Manhattan. Instead of 75 minutes, an hour and a quarter, in 35 minutes. They can go pursue jobs and more education in Westchester, Connecticut, as well as coming south into Manhattan. So, we're connecting the Bronx to the whole region first. And now the Interborough Express is going to get this Brooklyn, Queens component done as well.
Lehrer: Are there also going to be freight trains on that same track?
Lieber: Yeah, it is. Right now, it's a freight line. It's got, you know, very small number of freight trains. But we've worked it out so that you could have, and this is an idea that Congressman Jerry Nadler has been passionate about for a long time. If we end up being able to have more cross harbor, cross Hudson freight, they could simultaneously use the line, not the exact same tracks, but the same right of way, for freight travel as well as having passenger travel. So, that was the first thing that the consultant engineers studied so that we could have both passenger and freight. But the passenger analysis is going forward. We're doing the environmental review, and we could actually implement it and build them separately, irrespective of how quickly the freight component is moving.
Lehrer: Great, so we can address transit deserts and the supply chain at the same time.
Lieber: God willing.
Lehrer: We want to thank you, Janno Lieber, Chair and CEO of the MTA, for coming on and answering so many of my questions and our listeners’ questions. I hope we can do this from time to time because as you can hear, there's a big appetite for it. And I know our listeners really appreciate you coming on today.
Lieber: Glad to be with you.