MTA Construction & Development President Janno Lieber appeared live on NY1’s Inside City Hall with Errol Louis to discuss the future of the MTA and its part in New York’s revival.
A transcript of the interview appears below.
Errol Louis: New Yorkers who ride mass transit can let out a sigh of relief, at least for now, because there will be no fare hikes for the rest of this year, according to MTA officials. That announcement comes as the MTA, which has experienced dire financial hardship, is struggling to boost ridership, which has not yet returned to levels seen before the pandemic, currently hovering at around half of pre-pandemic levels. The agency says that raising fares would hurt efforts to get more customers back into the subways and on the buses. All this comes as questions swirl around much needed infrastructure improvements as well as the leadership of the agency, ever since Pat Foye announced that he's leaving his role as the Chair of the MTA and the CEO. He's going to be leaving by the end of this month and Governor Cuomo plans to split the roles, and that plan of course is stuck in political limbo. Joining me now to talk about all of that and more is the MTA's President of Construction and Development, Governor Cuomo's pick to become the next MTA CEO, Janno Lieber. Welcome and thank you for joining us.
Janno Lieber: Great to be with you, Errol.
Louis: Let me ask you about the thing that I think is probably on most people's minds, the latest big rainstorm led to flooding at lots of stations, despite those flex gates that were installed after Superstorm Sandy to prevent flooding. Do we need to reevaluate that program or install more of those gates?
Lieber: After Superstorm Sandy we spent billions, literally, but most of that was invested in areas that are low lying in the coastal flood areas, so called “one hundred year flood zones.” What we saw in the last couple of weeks was that in even much higher elevation areas, as a result of localized conditions, or drains getting blocked in the street, or penetrations of utilities into the subway system, holes that are dug, a lot of water got in. So we have to address that over time. But the planning for post-Superstorm Sandy for coastal flood and climate change is very much in effect and I think will be very effective.
Louis: Yes, some of the stations, we just showed that one up at 157 St, that's literally up pretty high, right? I mean it's about as high as it gets in New York City. But what plan is there to prevent those sort of things from happening? Is it sort of station by station, situation by situation?
Lieber: What we really need to look at is what the conditions were. In the case of a couple of those stations that you showed, what happened is that because the water fell so quickly, the stormwater system at the street level was overwhelmed and water got over the edges into the stairways and otherwise into the system. So we have to look at the street conditions and whether they're able to handle storm surge at the levels that we saw. Obviously, everything has to be right now about preparing for the consequences of climate change. Although the safety resiliency program has been great at the MTA, we now need to look at some of these higher elevation areas as well.
Louis: Got it. Another sort of a comeback issue that I know you're working on, in June, over 10,000 trips were canceled due to a lack of crew members. As of May, in fact, the agency had hundreds of vacancies for train operators and over 100 vacancies for train conductors. Are we staffed enough to bring the system back the way we're hoping will happen later this year?
Lieber: Absolutely. We're running, you know, even with the impacts of the attrition, obviously after COVID we had attrition, we had a hiring freeze because we did not know whether all the federal money was in fact coming so we couldn't hire more people, and with that, and the attrition, we lost some personnel and that's having some consequences. But we're running 95% of the services Errol, even with the crew impact, for roughly 50% of our prior population. That's pretty good. And we are going crazy training people. We've got 200 bus operators, subway conductors and subway operators being trained each month and I think in a matter of time we're going to be able to erase those crew deficits and get to truly 100% of service.
Louis: You know, people are coming back. I had to stand up on the train today, which was a first, probably the first time in a year. Actually I couldn't get a seat. So the MTA board this week said that a fare hike is not going to happen. What will that mean for the agency's finances?
Lieber: The bottom line is the MTA, as a result of Senator Schumer's extraordinary efforts aided by the entire New York delegation, we were able to obtain 14.5 billion dollars of federal COVID relief money for the MTA. So that kept us going, filling the holes in our budget out several years. But there's a deficit looming at the end of that period-that sort of 2024, 2025 area that we have to address. But right now, it makes no sense to raise fares. And Governor Cuomo and his team on the board, and everybody on the board unanimously decided this was not the time to raise fares. We need to support the city's recovery. We need to get people back to transit, and we're going to deal with the financial situation of the MTA in the long run by teaming up with the legislature, with the city, with the state, to find new, long term, recurrent sources of revenue, but we're not going to raise fares.
Louis: Okay. That brings us to congestion pricing, which is supposed to be a long-term source of revenue. Are you including estimates of revenue from congestion pricing in your planning?
Lieber: Well, congestion pricing was planned as a strategy for supporting the capital program, to rebuild the system and to expand the system, you know how important that is to the MTA. We want to grow the system, put in new lines, like the rest of the Second Avenue subway through East Harlem and central Harlem. We want to put in the new stations in the Bronx, which will allow people in Co-Op City to get to jobs and not in an hour and a half, but to 40 minutes or 30 minutes or less, so we need money for the capital program. Central Business District Tolling was for those projects and for state of good repair projects and ADA projects. We're going to get that money when congestion pricing comes online in a couple of years and we have enough money at the MTA to keep the capital program going in the meantime. But obviously the huge issue with congestion pricing was, Mayor after Mayor has tried to enact it and Governor Cuomo got it through the state legislature as part of our 2020-2024 Capital Program. Now we just have to implement it and put it into effect.
Louis: Should we then assume that big ticket items, like the extension of the Second Avenue subway, the installation of elevators at more stations, that'll be a couple of years in the future? What would be the timetable for that?
Lieber: No, we have enough money right now to continue all of our priority capital projects. I have $30 billion. Now that the federal money, thanks to Chuck Schumer and the New York delegation, has showed up in New York, I have enough capital money to keep the capital program going for several more years until congestion pricing bond proceeds show up in a couple of years. We're going to keep going. We had the biggest year in terms of new ADA station openings, that's elevators for disabled and mobility impaired folks and folks with strollers and otherwise. We had the biggest year for that. We're continuing to drive all of the major projects forward. We've got the Time Square Shuttle is going to be completely redone by Labor Day, Grand Central Station subway mezzanine completely redone, the train tunnel project was completely finished during COVID. We got all of OMNY, the new fare payment system installed throughout our system during COVID. We've been keeping the capital program going and we have enough to keep it going until the congestion pricing money shows up in a couple of years.
Louis: Okay. Now as for leadership, Pat Foye is scheduled to leave in August, we still don't have resolution about whether or not what was one job will be split into two jobs. Your name, of course, is right in the mix with all of this. What kind of plans are you making as far as your role in the agency?
Lieber: Well obviously, there's uncertainty right now, which is a disadvantage for the organization at this moment when we are preparing to support the city's incredible revival. It’s already underway. We know Broadway's coming back, this week hotel occupancy in the city was at the highest point since the onset of the pandemic. The city is very much coming back to life, and we need the MTA to be prepared and fully ready to support that recovery in the next few months, so a leadership gap doesn't make sense. The governor has asked the legislature to appoint Sarah Feinberg as the Chair and me as CEO. Sarah Feinberg is an extraordinarily qualified, world class transportation leader. Under Obama she was the Federal Railroad Administrator. She served on the Amtrak Board, she was on the MTA Board and she led New York City Transit, our subway and bus system, through the COVID, emergency period. What an extraordinary resume. And as she would be the woman who broke the glass ceiling at the MTA as Chair. We need the legislature to hopefully come back and consider the governor's proposal to split the job so she can be the Chairman, I will be the CEO running, day to day, and I would love to serve with Sarah Feinberg, an extraordinarily qualified, history making woman as MTA Chair.
Louis: In our last minute, about 233,000 people are enrolled in Fair Fares, that’s the half-price program for low income New Yorkers, even though an estimated 700,000 New Yorkers are eligible. There were some board members saying that a vigorous advertising campaign could double the number of people using that program. Are there any plans to make that happen?
Lieber: Well Fair Fares is a New York City initiative so we don't control it directly. But our board, and we support them, has called for the city to take some of the money that's come from Washington that’s allowed them to have a recovery budget, as it was described, invest some of that in advertising this amazing Fair Fares program which entitles New Yorkers who are living below the poverty line to have half-price or reduced price MetroCards. So, you know, it's a great program, it was an initiative of the city, it was pioneered by David Jones of our board, and it's time for the city to really advertise it so all of the New Yorkers in need can benefit from that program by enrolling through the city enrollment process that they need to go through.
Louis: Okay that's all of our time for now. I don't have to tell you that everybody watching is counting on you to make this comeback happen, we'll wish you the best of luck between now and Labor Day. Thanks for joining us.
Lieber: Thank you Errol, thanks for having me.