NYC Transit Interim President Sarah Feinberg appeared on Up Close with Bill Ritter on WABC-7 to discuss the phased reopening of overnight subway service and the MTA’s request for 1,000 additional NYPD officers to patrol the transit system.
A transcript of the interview appears below.
Bill Ritter: Good morning everyone, welcome to Up Close, I’m Bill Ritter. So when's the last time you rode the New York subway? No question, more people are now saying this week, or yesterday. Ridership, still, however, way down from a year ago, but it is increasing. And it’s happening at a time when crime is also increasing. Why is that happening, and how to stop it? We want to emerge from this pandemic and get back to work, back to New York City. This is a big deal, a big issue. Joining us to talk about that and more, the Interim President of New York Transit, Sarah Feinberg. And it's safe to say, Ms. Feinberg, you have had, like all of us, quite a year, but I think maybe none like yours. Safe to say?
Sarah Feinberg: That’s the way it feels. Great to be with you again.
Ritter: It is. Let me just say off the top and I will ask you this later, but I think I'll bring it up now since I just said interim president, you don't feel like an interim president. Is this your call, or someone else's up above, still calling you interim president?
Feinberg: You know, I am still the interim president and that makes sense for right now. I've got a lot on my plate so I'm not spending a lot of time worrying about my title.
Ritter: Okay, so I won't eat at that, I guess. But it's hard to call you Interim President Feinberg, but we’ll muddle through that.
Feinberg: You can just call me Sarah.
Ritter: Alright Sarah, we have a lot of issues that we want to deal with because there's no question. You look at your [ridership] stats, and you put them on every day. It was about two or three weeks ago, 80% down and now in the high 60s. And in fact, weekend before this, it was in the low 60s, so people were using the subway, there's no question ridership has increased.
Feinberg: No question we're coming back. I mean, look, it's slow but steady and we're getting there. Last couple of days aren’t particularly reflective obviously because of the snow, but we're absolutely making progress. We're at about 32, 33% of ridership now on the subways, still about 50% of ridership on buses so we're getting there.
Ritter: I want to get into the crime in a second but I do want to dig deeper into the weeds about the numbers. There are people who are hesitant, you know this, they are worried still about riding the subways. There are companies who say to workers, try not to take the subways quite yet until we have everyone vaccinated. Do you understand that, do you disagree with it? How are you handling?
Feinberg: I both understand it and I disagree with it. Look, I think we at transit and all of transit across the country and really probably across the globe were really ill served by some of the early coverage of the pandemic. I don't think it was intentional, but inevitably as reporting moved forward on the pandemic, the b-roll, you know the shots that were always shown were crowded subway cars, crowded airplanes, people standing in lines and look, the science coming out was get social distance, avoid being close to others. So I think people started thinking, the last place I want to be is in a crowded subway car. Well fast forward a year, there's now been study after study that shows that look, the subway system, the transit system, not just in New York but really everywhere, is really not a place that's vectoring the virus. That doesn't mean we shouldn't be doing everything we can to keep the system safe, to remind people to wear masks, to do everything we can to make sure that the transit system isn't a place where anyone’s going to get COVID but look, I think that's still very much in people's minds and it's our job to remind them and to show them how safe it is.
Ritter: It could be those public announcements by some news anchors in New York, saying “wear your mask,” just putting that out there.
Feinberg: You’re totally right.
Ritter: On to the more serious question about crime. I think you've been shocked, everyone's been shocked. The figure I saw was crime in the subways up 26%. It's just shocking. What do you attribute it to? We're going to want to get into what the different strategies for dealing with this is, I know you want more cops, we'll get that to that in a second. But why do you think this is happening?
Feinberg: Look, it’s hard to say. And to your point on that data, some crimes are up 26%, others are down and so the numbers are a little bit all over the place. Look, inevitably, we used to move, pre-pandemic, more than nine million people on an average weekday. We're still moving millions of people, about three million people a day, but that's a lot different than nine million people. And so when there are less people in the system, I think that we both notice issues, quality of life issues and crime issues more, and they just feel a lot closer to home. So I think that's part of our part of our problem right now.
Ritter: So you were calling out for 1,000 more cops. The police department gave you like 600, I 640 is the exact number or something like that. So there's upwards of 3,000, you want 4,000 cops patrolling and you're fighting hard for it and so far you're not getting anywhere with the NYPD and the Mayor.
Feinberg: We started actually calling for additional cops in the system more than a year ago. The Governor called for it and the MTA Board approved additional police officers, MTA police officers. We started hiring those when our finances fell off a cliff, we froze that hiring for a while, we've now restarted it. At the same time, we've been asking for additional resources from the city, more NYPD police officers but really, a lot of mental health assistance. A lot of the folks that we're seeing in this system are in desperate need of an intervention, of medical assistance and so we need those resources too. Look, I’m not a law enforcement expert, I'm not a policing expert. I'm happy to work with Commissioner Shea and Chief O'Reilly at the transit bureau about what number is right, but on top of what they've said they're going to add to the system, that 640 that you mentioned and if you added the 1,000 that we've called for, that really even just gets us close to the number of officers that were in the system back when transit first merged with NYPD. Now I don't want to take you back decades and have to do all this history but the reality is, a couple decades ago, when we were policing the system ourselves, that's about how many officers we had. So at least at this moment of time we'd like to get back close to that number.
Ritter: But you may have to handle it just with 3,000. Don't forget the city is under some budget restraints too, and down billions of dollars shortfall from their budget, so it may not have a great outcome. Can you do it with 3,100, as you have now?
Feineberg: Look, we've got our MTA police officers in this system, I'll take whatever I can get from NYPD. We've also got our own security forces in the system. Look, the system is what it is. It is the size that it is, it has a number of people in it. So we're going to do what we need to do with the resources we have, but obviously what I'm focused on is - I want the ridership to feel safe. You know, it's not just important that they be safe, they've got to feel safe, they've got to feel confident when they're in the system. That's what's going to bring ridership back, that's what's going to bring the city back, that's what I'm focused on.
Ritter: You are already doing something that you didn't do before, that is closing the subways for less amount of time. The subways have never been closed for this amount of time ever, and all of a sudden now it's going from four hours because you wanted to clean them very well. And by the way, I've been on it, it looks cleaner than it's ever been, ever. But now it's going to be two hours a day overnight because restaurants are open, businesses are open, and you're trying to encourage people to take the subway more hours. Is that going to hurt the cleaning possibilities?
Feinberg: Yeah look, the city is starting to come back so inevitably we want to start returning to the system we've always been, to be that 24/7 system. As you said, right now we're closed 1 to 5, starting on Monday morning, that goes to 2 to 4, we'll only be closed 2 to 4. We are cleaning 24/7, so we're not only cleaning during those overnight hours. It's just during those overnight hours when there are no customers in the system we're really efficient. We're able to get into those cars, we don't have to clean around people, we don't have to skip cars because there are folks using the cars, sleeping in the cars. Being closed for a few hours a night will be a challenge, but I think that we'll still be able to get done what we need to get done.
Ritter: Okay, I want to just ask you a personal question about what's happening on the job and how you're doing this. The person you replaced, you’re the interim president. The person who replaced, who was the permanent president, Andy Byford, left, people say, because he didn’t like the political battles between the two most powerful politicians in the state. And Heaven knows if they got along together, they might be able to do great things together, but they don't get along. And you've navigated it, it appears to me, or at least made less or fewer waves than Mr. Byford was able to do. How are you doing that? Is it a battle, and you have 30 seconds to answer a really complicated question.
Feinberg: It's not a battle. Look, for me, I'm just putting my head down and getting the job done. This is, on the best day, this is a really hard job, it’s very challenging, we’ve got a lot going on. Throw in a global pandemic, throw in ridership falling off the cliff, throw in disinfecting and cleaning the subway system multiple times a day and I've got a lot on my plate, so I try not to get into any political battles. I put my head down and I do my job and I figure it’ll work out.
Ritter: Probably the smartest thing to do. You know, not everyone may agree with you but we're all rooting for you because it’s for our safety. Thank you Sarah Feinberg, good luck to you.