NYC Transit Interim President Sarah Feinberg appeared on NY1’s Inside City Hall with Bobby Cuza tonight to discuss topics including the latest winter weather response, the phased reopening of overnight subway service, the transit authority’s urgent need for federal funding, and the MTA’s request for 1,000 additional NYPD officers to patrol the transit system.
A transcript of the interview appears below.
Bobby Cuza: Welcome back to Inside City Hall. MTA crews have been hard at work today keeping above-ground rails clear of snow as the city faces yet another snowstorm. Meanwhile the system is preparing for overnight service to be partially restored starting Monday, as officials deal with concerns over safety underground. And today, the MTA Board voted to increase tolls at bridges and tunnels, but are holding off for now on fare hikes for subways and buses. Joining me now to talk about all this and more, Sarah Feinberg, the interim president of New York City Transit. Welcome back to the show.
Sarah Feinberg: Great to be with you, thank you.
Cuza: So a whole lot going on today, but first, we'll talk about the snowstorm. This always wreaks havoc on the buses and sometimes forces the closure of above-ground subway lines. Talk about what the impact was on the system today.
Feinberg: So far, so good. Our teams have been planning for this for days, as soon as the first forecast first says that we're going to be getting some storms, we go into plan mode and working mode. Once again, the men and women of New York City Transit have done a beautiful job of keeping stairwells clear, sanded and salted, moving snow off of tracks. So we're in pretty good shape and on the bus side as well. Luckily ridership is light, so not that many people are out there having to deal with the weather today. But obviously, if you can stay in, stay in, if you have to be out, give yourself a few extra minutes, be careful on steps and walkways. But we're in pretty good shape tonight, fingers crossed.
Cuza: So the MTA Board today approved the 7% increases on the tolls on MTA bridges and tunnels, which always engenders a lot of goodwill on the part of drivers, particularly those on Staten Island, who take the Verrazzano Bridge on a regular basis. But the MTA is holding off for now on fare increases on subways and buses. Have those been put off indefinitely, or when can riders expect to see that sort of regular schedule of fare hikes resumed?
Feinberg: So they're put off, at least for now. We’re obviously very focused on bringing the city back, bringing ridership back. We’re serving more than three million people a day on average right now. A lot of those folks are essential workers, we want to make sure that we're getting them to and from where they need to be as seamlessly as possible. So fare hikes are off for now and we'll see what comes.
Cuza: Also, service cuts are off the table for now, as I understand it, in large part because of money from the federal government. The new stimulus plan, expected to bring billions of dollars to the system. I think I've seen an estimate somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 billion from the upcoming stimulus plan going to the MTA. I mean, this is really a lifesaver, this money, how much are we expecting to see?
Feinberg: I can't even tell you, I mean, what a good example and lesson for all the school kids out there about what a difference elections make and the consequences of elections. Having Chuck Schumer as our majority leader in the United States Senate makes all the difference in the world. I mean, that right there, New Yorkers, including myself, wake up every day and say thank God Chuck Schumer is the leader of the Senate and now the majority leader of the Senate. You know, a couple months ago, we were planning 40% cuts to service, 20% cuts to service, potential layoffs, it was really dark and pretty bleak. And the fact that we don't have to do that now, and that at least draconian cuts like that are off the table and layoffs are off the table for now is just huge news and we're so grateful.
Cuza: Let's talk about safety underground. There have been some high profile subway crime incidents, including that horrific stabbing spree last weekend that left two homeless people dead, the suspect in that case was apparently mentally ill. Now the NYPD is putting about 600 new, or I shouldn't say new, but 600 officers are now going to be patrolling the subways. You guys, though, asking for 1,000 more officers, which is a pretty big number, and might give the impression that things are kind of scary down there in the subways. Talk about where we are in terms of subway crime and why the need for so many officers.
Feinberg: Yeah, well think about where we are as a city right now, right? So we're trying to bring the city back from COVID, we're trying to bring the economy back from COVID. Our ridership has been down significantly for a year now because of the pandemic. We want people to come back. And it's important that they not just be safe in the system, but they feel safe in the system. I often say the same thing about why we're cleaning and disinfecting the system. I want you to be safe from COVID, but I also want you to feel safe from COVID. I want you to look around and see people, MTA cleaners disinfecting stations and cleaning stations and cars. And similarly, right now, as people are re entering the city, re-entering their commute, coming back, I want them to feel safe in the system. We know an overwhelming majority of our customers want to see police, a uniformed presence in the system, makes them feel more comfortable, makes them feel like it deters crime and prevents incidents. You're exactly right. The horrible incident from this past weekend, and congratulations and my thanks to the NYPD for making such a quick arrest in that case, and from my understanding, getting a confession in that case, it appears, you know, once again, a person who is experiencing mental illness and acute mental illness, needed help. Was not a stranger to the system, had been in and out of the system many times. Those are the kinds of crimes that we've got to prevent and we've got to make sure that people feel safe and protected from.
Cuza: I mentioned that, as of this weekend, there is the return of some overnight service on the subway system. It will now be closed for only two hours, 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. Talk about the thinking that drove that decision, what sort of metrics you guys use, and when we might see the system back up and running a full 24 hours.
Feinberg: Yeah, so again, it's really about the city coming back, you know, dining is open again, the people are staying out later, and so they'll need train service a little bit later and we expect that to go even later than 11 o'clock. And more than anything, the city is coming back, people are coming back to the city, you know, we are a 24/7 system, we want to return to being a 24/7 system. Right now we're cleaning 24 hours a day, our most efficient hours are between one and five when there are no customers in the system and we can be really efficient with our cleaning. We're going to move that from one to five to two to four so we can serve customers another hour on the evenings and start serving customers an hour earlier on the mornings. I think it's going to make it easier for those essential workers who need the system overnight, but we're going to continue to clean 24/7 and make sure that we're doing everything we can on our end to continue this “all-of-the-above” approach to keep people safe from COVID.
Cuza: Even as the city comes back, though, ridership is still a fraction of what it was before. I think it's less than a third of what it was pre-pandemic?
Feinberg: About a third on the subways, about half on buses.
Cuza: About half on buses, so as the city comes back, I've seen some estimates that, even a few years out from now, the ridership may only be back at about 92%, even in a best-case scenario of what ridership used to be. What kind of challenges does that present to the MTA's finances long term, if we’re never gonna get back to where we were a year ago in 2020?
Feinberg: Well look, we're looking at every scenario. So you're right, there are predictions that ridership could come back anywhere between mid-80s to low to mid-90s. I mean, look, we're gonna do our best to make sure that we get back to pre-pandemic levels and then go even higher than that. But I think what we're talking about is to see change, just generally. Post-pandemic, you know, people may not be in offices as much, are they going to commute? But look, at the same time, we're dealing with all kinds of other challenges, right? Climate change, and others that are also changing the way people are thinking and so it's really hard to predict. Our job is to make sure that we're ready for anything. I'm certainly looking for and aiming for 100% of our ridership to come back. I know in order to do that, I have to make sure that people feel like this system is safe, it's clean, they come back, they dip their toe in the water of their commute, they feel really comfortable and they remember that it's a lot easier and more efficient to use the subway than to sit in a car all day.
Cuza: All right, Sarah Feinberg, interim president for New York City Transit, thank you so much for joining us tonight.
Feinberg: Thanks so much.