Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Chair and CEO Janno Lieber delivered remarks at the Association for a Better New York (ABNY) Power Breakfast on public safety and the future of the MTA on Tuesday, April 26.
A transcript appears below.
Janno Lieber: Thanks, Melva and Steven…I’m thrilled to be here at ABNY to talk about the MTA – where we are and some of the challenges we face. ABNY, this organization was built by what many of us think of as the greatest generation of New Yorkers. Folks from labor and business and community organizations who saw New Yorkers were facing a dire situation in the 1970s and decided to do something about it. That’s exactly the type of civic engagement – cutting across industry, demographic and neighborhood lines – that we are going to need right now – to address the region’s challenges and the system challenges, as we emerge from the pandemic.
One thing that ABNY has always been rock solid about, and Steven talked about it already, is the importance of mass transit. You have always recognized that the MTA is the lifeblood of the City. Our entire way of life – residential density; people creating economic value in skyscrapers and swivel chairs; as many bars, restaurants, nightlife venues and performing arts spaces than the next five largest American cities combined, in terms of population – none of it works without mass transit. So, I’m here today to talk about the good, the bad and especially the ugly – the not-so-good stuff, where we need an ABNY-like consensus in order to overcome and move forward.
Some of that bad stuff was highlighted again last night by another high profile shooting in Queens where two guys, who apparently knew each other, got into an argument. Somebody pulled a gun – and somebody is dead.
But as I go through this, I’ll touch first on our extraordinary success using federal funds to plug our $2 billion operating deficits, coming out of COVID, and how we persevered on capital projects through COVID. And then there is the bad – one of the most immediate threats to our return is real and perceived safety on the subway. Lastly, the ugly, where things get really complicated.
Surging fare evasion, in addition to all of the other problems we are facing, threatens our bottom line, and also frays social norms when law abiding New Yorkers, and some of us saw this on the way here today, law abiding New Yorkers, observe too many of their neighbors slip through an open emergency gate, duck a turnstile, or walk onto an MTA bus without paying. Fare evasion is an ugly problem indeed. But here at ABNY today, I’m excited to announce a new initiative, on top of everything else, we’re trying to do on safety, a new initiative to respond to it.
But first, the good. The MTA has survived COVID to fight another day. You'll remember that in the Spring of 2020, and I’ve got to shout out to Pat Foye for his leadership through the heart of COVID – amazing! But during the Spring of 2020, transit ridership had dropped by more than 90%. We were literally losing $200 million a week. COVID posed an existential threat to everything we value about the city, but especially to mass transit. And despite this all of this, our heroic workforce kept going right through COVID, even though we really didn’t understand how it was transmitted. We kept the trains and buses running 24/7 and transported essential workers to where they were going and powered the City through the pandemic.
Today weekday subway ridership has recovered to roughly 60% of our pre-pandemic base, and the MTA has a balanced budget through 2025 due only to billions in federal aid — thank you Chuck Schumer!
But also I have to say we have a balanced budget because of hundreds of millions more dollars, delivered by Governor Hochul – this year – in her budget. That allow us to put off fare increases and so much more.
A significant deficit remains in the outyears, and we need policymakers and thought leaders to begin identifying solutions to assure that the MTA Board won’t be forced to use our last resort tools – fare hikes, layoffs, service cuts – in order to balance the MTA’s operating budget. I’ll come to that with all of you, back to all of you, in the months to come. But, for now, the MTA, and again thanks to Governor Hochul and our leadership in Congress, is in a much better place than at any time since the onset of the pandemic.
Capital Improvements / Mega Projects
With our operating budget crisis addressed – for the moment – we’ve continued to plow ahead on capital projects, everything we needed to rebuild, improve and expand the system. Projects underway before COVID never stopped. Thank you Gary LaBarbera and the men and woman of organized labor, thank you.
We figured out how to work safe and we never stopped any projects for more than a week. And we actually took advantage of low ridership to accelerate literally billions of dollars of construction work.
The results of that ought to inspire confidence in the MTA moving forward. Look at what we did: a total redo of the Times Square Shuttle, the oldest element of the MTA system. The expansion and rehabilitation of the entire Grand Central Station subway mezzanine. If you’ve been through that other subway, it’s a lot bigger, and there’s a lot more turnstiles and areas to circulate. The L Train Tunnel Project – high controversy, but it finished six months early and $100 million under budget – and also those ADA upgrades that I also mentioned. We were able to finish at a record 14 subway stations during the first year of COVID and now we have 26 more in process. That is a pace for ADA accessibility that’s never been achieved by the MTA – ever before.
And I can’t totally skip over East Side Access – the multi-billion-dollar effort to bring LIRR into Grand Central Terminal. After years of schedule delays, when I came to MTA, I insisted that we stick to the 2022 timeline. Every time it had been looked at before, and it got pushed back, and we said no. Now – we are going to get this done by the end of the year. Governor Hochul is all over it. East Side Access is finished by the end of this year.
2022 is also the year we begin to see the transformation of Penn Station. We opened an iconic new entrance on 7th Avenue. It was sort of overlooked because it was done in the middle of COVID, but it restores the presence of Penn Station on 7th Avenue, which was almost invisible. And now we’re in the home stretch of a special project that will double the width of the main LIRR corridor, which runs from 7th to 8th Avenues, and raise the ceiling significantly to 18 feet, transforming that central vein of the station from what Governor Hochul has called a dungeon to the kind of modern facility New Yorkers really deserve.
The next step on that front is implementing the Governor’s broader plan for Penn – which prioritizes improvements to the existing station. She’s right because while Amtrak has decamped to the gorgeous, new Moynihan Train Hall, across 8th Avenue, mostly paid for by the State of New York, most New Yorkers are stuck in existing Penn because that’s where the LIRR tracks terminate and where the 7th and 8th Avenue subways stop. They don’t have a choice, in most cases, to move to Moynihan.
Joe Biden once said that New York should be ashamed of LaGuardia Airport. What do you think he’d say if he took a tour of existing Penn Station during the evening rush, when thousands of people are crowded into cramped, low-ceilinged corridors gazing up at track assignment boards like they are waiting for Moses to bring the tablets down from Mount Sinai. We’ve got to change that.
Now the bad. All of these investments and upgrades won’t make a difference if people don’t feel safe using mass transit. That is our biggest challenge right now, from the horrific pushing murder of Michelle Alyssa Go to this month’s terrible mass shooting in Sunset Park. Our passengers deserve to be safe AND to feel safe in our system.
Later today there is an event celebrating the first 100 days of the Adams administration. Fresh breezes have been blowing since January 1 and – let me tell you – they have reached MTA’s underground kingdom. The MTA is so thrilled to have partners both in City Hall and in Albany who are so fully committed not just to subway safety, but to everything about our mission.
But, as the Mayor has made clear, we need to further increase law enforcement's visibility throughout the system and to get serious about enforcement of the MTA’s longstanding Rules of Conduct. Safety isn’t just about major crime stats. When riders see people breaking the rules – smoking, public urination, open drug use, vandalism – they wonder: what else might that person do to me?
And conversely, the overwhelming majority of our riders tell us that the one thing that makes them feel safer is to see a cop on the train or on the platform, which is where they are feeling vulnerable. The MTA has been pushing this strategy, moving cops onto trains and platforms, for some time – long before Mayor Adams moved into City Hall – and I’m thrilled that the Mayor and his Police Commissioner have promised to deploy cops to those areas, and actually announced after the Sunset Park shooting that they were surging cops into the transit system. In fact, with this incredibly ambitious agenda the Mayor has set for subway safety we may need those extra cops for a good long while.
We’ve already seen how this redeployment works, can in fact work. Two examples, on a single day last month two officers patrolling the J train saw a man walking between cars, which is illegal because so many people fall between cars when they are doing that. They approached the guy, he ran. When they apprehended him, they recovered a .22 caliber firearm, loaded. A similar situation in Jackson Heights – police saw an intoxicated guy lying face-down on the platform, approached him, when he rolled over, a loaded .22 fell out of his jacket. That’s cops on platforms, cops on trains.
Now people are talking about subway cameras these days, understandably, in the wake of the violence in Sunset Park. They are a big part of the safety equation, so let me just say a few words about that. Today we have 10,000 cameras system-wide in the subways, an increase of about 60% in a few short years. No one sent us a pile of additional money to install more cameras. We just made it a priority and we did it—and it was Sarah Feinberg who made that happen, Sarah, thank you.
The failure rate is about 1%, which as the NYPD emphasized in the wake of this horrific incident in Sunset Park, that percentage, that reliability, is the best of any agency that they work with. In fact, we had people working on those cameras less than 24 hours after the image stopped feeding. And they were working on the cameras at the moment when the subway attack took place, and they were actually pushed out of the comms room by the cops.
We are proud of what we’ve done on cameras so far. As I said, we have 600 cameras just on the line in Brooklyn, and 36 separate video perspectives that our law enforcement partners looked at on the day of the horrific Sunset Park shooting. We take some comfort that our video feeds produced images of the suspect in multiple stations and on buses both before and after the attack, which helped the police to track and apprehend him. But we are also taking this incident as a prompt to examine how we can improve, and we look forward to sharing updates on that work.
Addressing Fare Evasion
Now the ugly. A huge part of the ecosystem of safety is addressing fare evasion. This has been a growing problem for us in the last few years – almost quadrupling in recent years on the subways from about 3 percent to about 12.5 percent. And it’s even worse on buses, where 1 in 3 customers skip out on the fare. Fare evasion hurts us on commuter rails too and even at our bridges and tunnels, where we are seeing more fake and obscured license plates designed to evade cameras. It is truly an “all of the above” behavior engaged in by too many commuters across all demographics and income levels.
This is a really significant challenge. Obviously, it hits us in the farebox. Equally important, I would argue, fare evasion tears at our social fabric.
- Here’s the hole in the farebox. Fare-beating costs the MTA hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Unless the agency is financially stable, we won’t be able to do what it takes to support New York’s economic comeback and to achieve our climate goals. And MTA’s financial condition has huge implications for the transit equity agenda and our effort to chip away at New York City’s transportation deserts. We want to be able to grow service, not shrink it to fill operating budget gaps. Financial problems at the MTA inevitably have the biggest impact on folks who have no choice but to depend on mass transit.
- Second, here’s the hole in the social fabric – to me, the heart of the matter. Pervasive fare evasion is a threat to the spirit that makes New York not just a great City, but a great community. I often say that, while I love Times Square, Prospect Park and other New York destinations, the transit system is our most important public space. It may not remind you of a church, a mosque or a synagogue, but I think the transit system actually is a sacred space. It’s where every day New Yorkers of all backgrounds encounter each other and prove out the world’s greatest experiment in diversity and tolerance.
In short -- paying the fare isn’t just something we owe the MTA – it’s something we owe each other.
Our New York sense of fairness and community is violated when rule abiding, honest folks – people who swipe because they know it’s the right thing to do, even if it’s a stretch economically – see others dodging the fare. I want you to imagine for a second: You’re a nurse on the way to the hospital, a teacher on the way to school, a person on a fixed income. You paid your fare this morning because you know it’s the right thing to do, even if it’s tough on your pocketbook.
Now, how do you feel when you see others not paying? Especially if you see folks in designer clothes, carrying $7 lattes, waltz in through the emergency exit gate at Wall Street or on the Upper East Side? (We actually have video of that!) What hardworking, fare paying New Yorkers tell us, in a word, is that seeing fare evasion makes them feel like suckers.
I’m afraid that with rampant fare evasion we’re approaching a tipping point where people who want to play by the rules become so demoralized that they say, “why should I pay when so many others don’t?”
Some of the most memorable moments for me at the MTA have come at public hearings where our riders tell us how much fare evasion outrages them. These are people who show up to object to a potential 10-15 cent fare hike. As one of them put it: “For the people who are [paying to be] on the buses and trains... to see this, it’s really an insult.”
Fare evasion is a problem that we need to solve together. That’s why today I am convening of a panel of distinguished New Yorkers to take a deep dive into the issue. The goal is to hit the reset button on how we approach fare evasion at the MTA and across government. We’ve come up with a really, really strong list of participants who are representative of all of our New York communities and areas of expertise. I’m excited to report that Melva Miller of ABNY will be serving on this blue-ribbon panel. Thank you, Melva.
The group’s mission will be to find and promote “all of the above” solutions to this “all of the above” problem. It will be driven by the principles of fairness and citizenship – all values that have long animated ABNY. The panel will produce policy and action recommendations over the summer. We anticipate they will focus on three areas: education, equity, and enforcement.
Education: Our blue-ribbon panel will come up with new ideas about how we can get the word out that paying the fare is simply the right thing to do. Asian, Black, white, brown, rich, middle class, low income, all ages, all genders – everybody taps, everybody swipes. It’s basic civic behavior that knits our social fabric together. We’ll work with our partners in the schools to get that message out to our kids and I’m thrilled that NYC Schools Chancellor, David Banks, has agreed to serve on the panel. And we'll be working to get that word out, also, to the white-collar folks, those people going through the emergency gates with their $7 lattes.
Equity: From my first day as Chair and CEO, I’ve been talking about affordability. Our system is one of the few things that actually makes this city affordable – especially when compared to the cost of owning a car, which runs $10,000 plus all in, for a year.
Another positive sign of our affordability: the ratio between fares, on the one hand, and the minimum wage in New York is among the lowest of any city in the country. And look at another metric watched closely for many years by NYC transit geeks – right now we are way cheaper than a New York slice of pizza! As Melva mentioned, in recent months, we’ve added a wide range of additional discounts, Lucky 13, tap the first twelve, ride the week, everything after that is free, but a lot of the other discounts are designed to make riding even cheaper on subways, buses and the commuter railroads.
But all that said, the panel will start from the principle that no one should be denied opportunities to connect with jobs, education and everything New York has to offer because they can’t afford to swipe or tap. So our blue-ribbon panel, which includes long-time activists for economic justice, like Jo-Ann Yoo of the Asian American Federation. The panel will explore how we can work with the City to expand access to the MTA system for our low income neighbors.
That will mean, for example, taking a fresh look at the Fair Fares program, many of you haven’t heard about this, but that program provides deeply discounted MetroCards to New Yorkers living below the poverty line. Mayor Adams and the City Council have begun to restore the funding the prior administration cut out of the program during the pandemic. But today only 200,000 of the 800,000 New Yorkers who qualify actually receive the benefit, and even people who are enrolled rarely use it. There’s clearly a communication issue. Fair Fares needs to be publicized, it needs to be dramatically bigger, it needs to be more inclusive and easier to access. I am committed to working with the City to see if we can do better in this incredibly important area.
Enforcement: We can’t shy away from law enforcement, done right, as one tool in our anti-farebeating toolkit. Enforcement helps send the do-the-right-thing message. It also helps keep the system safe. News Flash! – people who commit robberies and violent crimes generally don’t bother with MetroCard swipes or OMNY taps, and they don’t want to get stopped.
What we all want is to deter transit crime before it happens – by keeping bad actors out of the system in the first place. Fare evasion enforcement can pick up all kinds of illegal guns and other weapons, as evidenced by a couple of incidents I mentioned. But maybe more important, it can discourage criminals from coming into our system to do crime in the first place.
But let me be clear: I am not interested in sending people to jail, especially young people who make mistakes or low-income New Yorkers. Failure to pay $2.75, or even the reduced fare of $1.37, without more, should not change the trajectory of anybody’s life. Critics of past approaches to fare evasion enforcement have raised serious questions about equity and racial justice. Our panel will look seriously at those questions and recommend solutions that respond to them.
I am going to challenge this panel to look for a fresh mix of evasion enforcement tools that are both effective and equitable. What’s in that mix will ultimately be determined with the panel. But here’s some food for thought.
- What about, for example, greater use of civil penalties that aren’t administered by police? Parking restrictions are enforced by unarmed traffic enforcement agents. There have been proposals in the Legislature along this line. Let’s take a look at fare enforcement regimes that maybe use some of these ideas.
- What about finding new ways of sorting the law enforcement response based on who you’re dealing with? I talked about this a moment ago. There’s an important difference between folks who just need a second chance and serious recidivists and violent criminals. For the latter, I’d hope the panel will support some appropriate prosecution.
- Can the panel help us work with our partners in the district attorneys’ offices to come up with a clear, unified approach? It would be great to have an agreement among everybody on what will and won’t be charged, and under what circumstances.
The panel’s “all of the above” approach will start with education, equity and enforcement, but it won’t end there. I would invite the group to examine technology and personnel solutions. For example, in an all-OMNY system we’ll have new technical capacity to check for fare compliance beyond the gate – inside of the system. So our panel might look at doing what many systems outside the U.S. already do: civilian fare checkers on trains, platforms and buses.
I’d also invite a look at how physical design can help reduce fare evasion. There has to be a better way to comply with the fire code than our current emergency gates, which have become totally porous. Fare evasion – we’ve all seen it. People walk out, they walk in, they open the gate, and then five people come in. There is a next generation of turnstile and entry gates coming in, and I want the panel to look at how those future arrays can be more evasion-proof.
Look I’m excited to see what our panel comes up with. And I look forward to pursuing their recommendations with our many partners in this work: the district attorneys’ offices, the courts, police, educators, the Legislature, the tech community, the design and construction community – and of course, with City Hall and Albany – and with our own great MTA workforce and union leadership.
Coming to real, long-lasting, effective solutions will take some time on safety, fare evasion, and all of the other challenges we face. But I will always believe we have to be better. As Steven referenced, I grew up in New York in the 70’s and just the experience of seeing that amazing evolution has made me an incurable optimist about New York. And that was before I spent 14 years rebuilding the World Trade Center where we proved we can overcome the naysayers and create a better version of Lower Manhattan after 9/11. So I can’t help being super optimistic.
The MTA is the lifeline for New York City. We are having some tough times, but I believe the MTA and New York will come out of this crisis stronger and better than ever, and I look forward to working with everybody in this room to make sure that happens.