Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Chair and CEO Janno Lieber made a live morning television appearance on NY1’s Mornings on 1 with Pat Kiernan and Jamie Stelter to discuss the New York State budget agreement’s impact on the MTA, and other transit-related topics.
A transcript of the interview appears below.
Pat Kiernan: A lot of New York City politicians don't like the structure of the MTA because it's so dependent on decisions made in Albany. We have been waiting to hear how much funding there will be for the year ahead. Here's what Governor Hochul had to say about what's in the conceptual agreement for the next state budget as far as MTA funding is concerned. Some of the highlights for the fiscal year 2024 include: a payroll tax hike on city businesses that would generate $1.1 billion for the MTA. The agency will also receive a one-time contribution from the state of $300 million dollars. The city would be asked to contribute $165 million specifically for paratransit. The State wanted the City to kick in much more, that figure was negotiated down. The next fare hike would be limited to $2.86, for a single fare. The MTA originally said that it would want $2.90 to balance the budget. A pilot program will make one bus route, in each borough, free to ride. And the MTA will be tasked with finding $400 million worth of cost savings in the next year. Here to talk more about this and exactly what's happening in the year ahead for the MTA, Chair Janno Lieber. Good to have you here with us this morning.
Janno Lieber: Good. You told the whole story. Good job.
Kiernan: I imagine there's a little bit you can fill in here. This is still at this point, an agreement in principle, a conceptual agreement. At some point you will get the final numbers from –
Lieber: Absolutely, and it's I think, I’m confident it’s going to be exactly what you outlined. Listen, when I got confirmed in 15 months ago, the MTA was under 50% ridership. And we were starting to realize we were looking at a $2 billion dollar a year deficit. And I started to go out and educate the public about it. And you know what the governor got it. She stepped up and she put a proposal on the table that solved the whole deficit problem for four years – not for one year. Albany frequently does one-year solutions. For four years, the legislature followed her lead. And today MTA riders aren't worrying about cuts in service. They're actually going to get more subway service. So that's a big, big improvement.
Kiernan: So, can you live with this – what’s been outlined?
Lieber: Absolutely. It addresses the whole deficit – for four years. We're actually starting to plan, it takes a few months to get it organized, how we're going to grow service, a little bit on the weekends – especially where we're having very, very positive return to ridership. And also in the evenings, even after the rush. So, when people are coming home, if they go out, there's a little bit more service. So, this is great news for New York and for the MTA.
Jamie Stelter: The weekends have been strong the whole time since we've been coming back from COVID. You are celebrating getting 4 million riders on two days last week. It's still not where you want to be, but you're happy to get this far?
Lieber: Listen, you know, we're hitting records every week. You know, we had 100 million rides in a month for the first time. Last week was the biggest ridership during the weekdays that we've ever had on the subways. Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North are hitting new records every week. The city's getting, in terms of ridership, the city is really getting back to normal. This budget makes it possible for us to keep going in that direction. I'm thrilled. And part of that, Jamie, is service has been so great. 85% on time performance, the best in 10 years on the subways. Record-breaking on time performance on both commuter railroads. This is where we want it to be.
Kiernan: So, the politicians have directed you to find $400 million dollars in additional cost savings. But they've said find it without cutting service. That's a tall order.
Lieber: Yeah, you know, we actually proposed that ourselves, because we do think there are ways that the MTA has got to become more efficient, without impacting on service or cutting personnel. One way that we're really focused on is growing, what we call, availability. We are ten days on average, per year, our workers work ten days less than they did before COVID, principally because of health care issues, and family issues coming out of COVID. So, we're going to work with our workforce and with our unions to try to get those days back. It means that we don't have to pay as much overtime or hire extra workers. By the way, you know, remember a year ago, we were also, we didn't have enough workers to run the system and to run every run on the subway.
Stelter: Oh, “limited crews available” was like…
Lieber: "Limited crews available."
Stelter: …all I was saying.
Lieber: Good point. We hired all of those people. The rest of American transit is really struggling to come back, in terms of, their employee base. We're back at full strength. It is one of the reasons we can succeed.
Kiernan: Can you get a couple of those workers to Staten Island Railroad this morning?
Stelter: Yeah. I saw him looking over my shoulder.
Lieber: You know what, I think the Staten Island Railroad also had some impact from the storm. You're not wrong.
Lieber: We’re focusing on, and I also see one of my home stations, Newkirk, is having signal problems, so we'll be dealing with that. But just think the day after this record-breaking, record-breaking rainfall, we are, you know, we're running basically full service in the peak, that's where we want to be.
Kiernan: Okay. So, one of the things in the budget is the mandate that there will be one free bus line in each borough. Do you know which, which the buses will be, or could it be a new creation?
Lieber: It could be. You know, it's one of the things we're going to look at. We have, we have not at all determined where these is going to be, but here are a couple of principles. One, we're really going to use it to study whether you know, pricing could be used to grow ridership, to have more people use the system. There's some parts of the city where people are kind of not very close to the subway or commuter rails, we want to grow that kind of activity. What we don't want to do is to have people to reinforce the idea that all the buses are free. We made the buses free during COVID because we were trying to protect the bus drivers in the early days. And we were having trouble getting people to pay again.
Kiernan: Well, that's what I was going to ask you, that some people have been helping themselves to buses.
Kiernan: The fact that you've designated one the free bus doesn't make a difference to them these days.
Lieber: That's why strategically it's got to be not on the same route, as you know, five other bus lines so people are not confused about what's the paying bus.
Kiernan: Right. This isn't the free bus, the free bus just came five minutes ago.
Lieber: Right. Exactly. It's got to be one. But also, we just want to study how pricing can be used to grow ridership. I mean, the MTA system is really affordable compared to places like London and a lot of other world cities. And transit is one of the very few things that makes New York City affordable. It's like 10% the cost of owning an automobile. But we have to use this five-route pilot to figure out how to grow ridership rather than discouraging it.
Stelter: We talked last week about MTA stopped using Twitter to put out service alerts. This is a big change. We've all pulled back from Twitter a bit. So, we get the headline of why, but do you feel like this will be a disservice to some of the riders not to be able to get that information that way?
Lieber: You know Jamie, you're right. It's a little bit of a change. But Twitter you know, has a big brand in social media, but it was only 15% of our communications with our riders. Our riders are using all the different apps and the MTA website. WhatsApp has grown. WhatsApp is one app that has really grown in usage. And we put out information for our riders on service with all those, you know, hundreds and hundreds of screens that we have in the stations. So, we're confident that we can continue to communicate with our riders. What happened was that Twitter is intermittently pulling back our use of their system because they decided they want to charge fifty grand a month, and we can't have our riders depending on one source, and then it not being there. That's why we said too unreliable, we need to pull back from it in a permanent way.
Kiernan: Honestly, all of us have kind of had it up to here with Elon Musk and all the changes at Twitter. That's understandable. Janno Lieber thanks for coming in this morning.
Lieber: You bet. Thanks Pat.
Kiernan: Alright Jamie. He's already read over your shoulder to see what the subway report is.
Stelter: You’ve already gotten the traffic report from the real expert.
Lieber: Signal problems on Newkirk Av on the . My wife is going to be calling any minute now.