MTA Chairman and CEO Patrick Foye appeared on CNN International's Quest Means Business with Richard Quest to discuss the impact of President Biden’s infrastructure plan on the MTA, as well as how the COVID pandemic and vaccine rollout have affected ridership throughout the transit system.
A transcript of the interview appears below.
Richard Quest: The man who runs the New York City subway says President Biden's infrastructure plan is a once in a generation opportunity, and Pat Foye says he plans to make the most of it. It's a $2 trillion package that's the pillar of the Biden agenda. Now we're gonna hear the President pitch it tonight in his first address to the joint session of the US Congress. Last year as the city shut down, the collapse in subway ridership was unprecedented, look at that, the revenue lost was dramatic and crippling to the authority’s funds, only now, slowly, look at the right side of the graph, can you see the improvement. The MTA’s Pat Foye, I visited last year when I was on the subway, this is last year. Look at it, when there's barely anybody traveling on the subway. The numbers have improved, slowly but surely. Back then, there wasn't a mask mandate, back in April 2020. There was no mask mandate for me to wear as I walked through. Now of course that's all changed. The head of the MTA says, whilst there's a long way to a full recovery, passengers will no doubt return underground in the city that never sleeps.
Patrick Foye: So ridership is down, clearly. On subways on Friday, the last business day weekday, we carried 2.1 million passengers. That's the best we've done in 100 days. We carried 1.1 [million] on buses, that's a lot of people, but that compares to 7.5 million on subways and buses our regular weekday prior to the pandemic. So we've come a long distance Richard, you may recall at the bottom of the pandemic, ridership on subways was down 95%. We've come a long way, but we've got a long way to go. It will be 2024 before we get within striking distance of the levels of ridership that existed prior to the pandemic.
Quest: If we look into sort of measures that you took in New York, there's a much famous and loved 24-hour subway, which of course had to start the cleaning that had to take place. We now know so much more about this virus, how can you adapt service as a result of what we now know?
Foye: We're looking forward in the near term to restoring 24-hour service to the city that never sleeps. Obviously we've all learned a lot about COVID-19 over the past 15 or so months, but we're going to continue disinfecting our subway cars, our subway stations, buses, commuter rails, paratransit vehicles, and the like, even recognizing that the primary mode of transmission of COVID-19 is aerosols, coughing, etc. 75% of our customers say our stations have never been cleaner. That is really positive and we're going to continue the disinfecting regime going forward, given the reassurance it gives to our customers and to our employees.
Quest: The Victorians built the network, the Edwardians advanced the network, arguably, the last 50 to 70 years, we have tinkered with it but the infrastructure on our networks, has not been maintained or invested upon. Is this the once in a generation opportunity to build, repair and improve?
Foye: Yes, I think it is. Casting in American terms obviously the [New Deal] and President Roosevelt in response to the Great Depression.
Clip of President Franklin Roosevelt: “I pledge myself to a New Deal for the American People.”
Foye: General President Eisenhower with respect to building the interstate highway system.
Clip of 1956 newsreel on President Dwight Eisenhower: “The highway construction program initiated by Ike is the biggest peacetime enterprise ever undertaken.”
Foye: I think with respect to President Biden and an unbelievably thoughtful and aggressive [$2 trillion] infrastructure plan including $85 billion for transit, that this is a once in a generation opportunity that we've got to take. Transit also, in addition to the economic and job creation, is beneficial for the environment. The MTA every year avoids 17 million metric tons of greenhouse gas, and in addition, there's a social equity component for transit in New York City from the very first days of the subway and that continues as I mentioned, Second Avenue Subway phase two, the four new stations in the Bronx, and right now we continue to carry essential workers and first responders who have been heroes. But your characterization is exactly right and I just put it in American terms.
Quest: What have you all, do you think, whether it's the Tube in London, the Metro in Paris, the subway in New York, the great underground railways of the world. What have you learned, do you think, over the last 18 months?
Foye: Well what we've gone through in New York and obviously other places around the world, is I think the greatest mass abrupt change in human behavior ever in New York. And the ridership decline, for instance, during the Great Depression was 13%, that compares to 95% in the worst days of the pandemic in March or April of last year, and New Yorkers and Americans and others around the world were able, on a dime, to change their behavior. To not commute, to work remotely if that was an option. Our challenge now is also human behavior which is to rewind that and to get people to return to their offices, their jobs, restaurants, Broadway, and to take transit to do that. I believe we can do that, we can make a clear and compelling case to our customers that the system is safe from a COVID-19 point of view. There's been no outburst any place in the world related to transit where mask compliance is universal. But I'm inspired by the work of our customers and our employees, and I'm inspired by the heroism of our customers, especially first responders and essential employees who've been our core customers during the pandemic. And to them, all New Yorkers and all Americans owe a huge debt of gratitude.
Quest: The head of the MTA.