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Transcript: MTA Chair and CEO Lieber Appears Live on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show

Updated January 8, 2024 5:30 p.m.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Chair and CEO Janno Lieber appeared live on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show to discuss rapid restoration of full service following last week’s derailment at 96 St  Station and other transportation related topics.

A transcript of the interview appears below. 

Brian Lehrer: Brian Lehrer on WNYC.  With us now, the CEO and Chair of the MTA, Janno Lieber. After last week's derailment with dozens of injuries on the number one train and 96th street; a big possible flooding event in the weather forecast for tomorrow that could affect mass transit; the congestion pricing process nearing completion, the toll could start being charged this spring below 60th Street in Manhattan, from what I've seen; maybe even his take on what Penn Station renovation should be like; and whether Amtrak should start running a one-seat ride from Long Island to Washington, DC, as apparently some people are talking about. Chairman Lieber, never a dull moment when you run the MTA. Welcome back to WNYC.

MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber: Great to be with you, Brian.

Lehrer:  And listeners, your questions welcome for MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber on all things buses, subways, commuter rails, bridges and tunnels within the city. And yes, congestion pricing. 212-433 WNYC, 212-433-9692, your calls and texts. So, what did happen with that collision and derailment with a few days hindsight now on the number one train last week?

Lieber: The investigation is still underway, so I'm not going to get ahead of that but the basic facts are there was an in-service passenger train, a number one train, you know it from your neighborhood Brian, it was moving normally and then there was an out-of-service number one train that was on the adjacent track and it was being operated in kind of a manual mode because the brakes had been disabled by vandals, and the result was it had a red signal against us and yet it proceeded as they were crossing onto the same track and they bumped into each other at very low speed. So the specifics of what went wrong are still under investigation but any time two trains, you know, bump into each other even at super low speed, you got to take it seriously and we're doing that. We were thrilled that we were able to restore service very quickly and, you know, run a pretty robust shuttle bus service in the meantime so that the impacts to customers were managed.

Lehrer: The last number of injuries I saw was 26.  Any of them serious to your knowledge?

Lieber: Not so far. The FDNY, EMS folks who did the triaging said it was all not serious and all walked away. But obviously, you know, that's a scary experience for some of our customers, and we definitely want to get to the bottom of it and minimize it. The good news is this type of event only happens apparently once every 10 or 15 million trips. Compare that to the auto industry, where there's an accident every 70,000 trips. We love the safety of mass transit by comparison.

Lehrer: For sure. So you anticipated my next question, I think, which is: Is there any systemic issue there as you see it? Or is this kind of a one off that was bad but doesn't suggest something is off in the way things work that threatens more such collisions?

Lieber: Listen, again, as I said, I'm not going to get ahead of the investigation, but I'm really confident in the safety record of New York City transit, of our subway system, comparatively, it is by far the safest way to get around and we're looking at making it safer. We've begun outfitting - about 60% of our trains are outfitted with these, what they call an event recorder like a black box. We're putting on cameras on the inside of every subway train. We're pretty far along in that process. And this is all supported by and funded by Governor Hochul who's made safety on the mass transit system a big priority.

Lehrer: You want to hear a kind of random question from a listener on something else that could theoretically cause a train to stop very suddenly and cause injuries. Listener writes: ‘Ask Janno,’ guess they’re on a first name basis with you, ‘ask Janno why there is still emergency brakes on some subway cars for idiots to pull for no reason and paralyze a line.’

Lieber:  Bingo. You know the writer has a point. We had 1,700+ emergency brake activations last year, only 30 of them, Brian, were actually legit because there was a condition or an emergency that warranted, most of them are vandalism, and the result is when they can't reset the brakes, which is what happened in the case of this passenger train that had the collision, it disrupts everybody. Now, if we have cameras in cars inside the cars, like we're putting in, we're gonna be able to get those people just like we get everybody who commits crimes, major crimes, on the platforms and the mezzanines and elsewhere in the system. So, I'm really optimistic that we're going to be able to crack down on that form of vandalism.

Lehrer: I've never been on a train, I'm pretty sure, on which someone pull the emergency brake. What happens when somebody does that? Does the train come to a screeching immediate halt? Or is it slowed down in a professional way?

Lieber: No. It comes to a professional immediate halt right away because the brakes are activated and then there's investigation by the the train personnel and they have to reset the brakes in order to move forward. Once they've checked that there's nothing that needs further investigation- so if it's just a vandalism-related activation, they reset the brakes once they've done the investigation and then they move the train forward.

Lehrer: Before we get to congestion pricing, despite some pretty flakes this weekend, the city's streak of no measurable snow, no plowable snow continues for 700+ days. Did you have to deal with much on any parts of the Metro-North lines that's affecting commutes?

Lieber:  Yeah, we were prepared. The forecast was, you know, long in advance and we plan for it. We had all our equipment deployed, all our snow fighting equipment, all of our pilot trains. So, you know, there was six inches up in Putnam County, but we dealt with it and, you know, we're pretty good at dealing with weather, as you know, from some of the extreme weather events we're all seeing in the era of climate change.

Lehrer: Well, what there has been more of, as we see this year of global warming continue, is flooding events that impact service more than snow events, obviously you know that. And another such storm could be coming tomorrow we're being told. What are you expecting and how do recent problems in the system suggest how you should be preparing for something like that in 2024?

Lieber: Well, you know, we do it again and again, Brian. What we do is make sure that we have a ton of pumping equipment deployed around the system, there are all the pumps throughout the system. There are hundreds of them are fully operable. That all the drains are open and not clogged and that we're ready to deploy customer service agents if there are any impacts of any kind, and so on and so on. So we're getting pretty good at this because as you know, we've had a lot of weather events, but we have also prepared always for - every time there's a big storm and these flash flooding events take place we learn where there are vulnerabilities in the system to water getting into stations, and we work with city DEP to close those up. The big challenge that we cannot overcome on our own is the fact that the city storm sewer system doesn't have capacity beyond roughly an inch and ¾ per hour. So we always pushing the City of New York, God bless, our partners, to increase the capacity of the storm sewer system so that the subway doesn't become the backup, where all the water waits while they can't get enough out of the system. So that's the big issue for the long run. In the meantime, we're getting better and better at fighting these flash flooding and rain events.

Lehrer: All right well, obviously we've been covering the progress toward congestion pricing on the station. We've done some segments about this latest iteration of the plan with other guests. How close are we and what are the basic outlines of what you think is now the final version?

Lieber: Yeah, well, the special board that was established by state law, remember, congestion pricing wasn't just something that I came up with after a drinking binge, it was actually enacted as the law of the State in New York in 2019, and part of that law said there was a special board that looked at all of the factors and set the price and the exemptions and the discounts and so on. They did that about a month ago. That was chaired by Carl Weisbrod, the longtime civic figure, most recently the Chairman of the City Planning Commission.

So they're proposing a $15 base call, big discounts overnight, on weekdays that would be between 9pm and 5am, on weekends 9 p.m. to 9 a.m., a 75% discount overnight, huge discounts for low-income, a full exemption for people with disabilities and some other specifics. And so we're ready to implement that program and really start to deal with the fact that we have no more room on our streets. We are already beyond the traffic that we had before COVID. Ambulances can't get to hospitals, fire trucks can’t get to fires and it is a threat to our city and it's also bad for our air and and it frankly creates more crashes that hurt people and cyclists. So we're ready to implement that program. The principle challenge that we face now is lawsuits. It's America, so there's always a pile of lawsuits when you try to do anything, even if you do a four-year, 4,000-page study that studies every traffic intersection halfway to Philadelphia. We did that. People are challenging the federal government's approval of our study. But we're going to win those lawsuits and we're going to implement this and it's going to be better for people because it's going to make less traffic, means cleaner air, safer streets, and it's going to pay for transit, things like modern signaling, more ADA-compliant stations with elevators, zero emissions buses so we can have cleaner air, good stuff. It's going to come soon.

Lehrer: So passenger cars $15, motorcycles $7.50, trucks, I think it’s anywhere from $24 to $36 to drive into the Central Business District that is Manhattan below 60th Street. Those are the basics, right? Plus a $1.50, a $1.25 is it surcharge per ride, and Uber and Lyft and the other rideshare services $2.50?

Lieber: Brian, thanks for doing, carrying all the water on the specifics. The first thing I would say is just remind everybody there is a 75% discount overnight, so those numbers that you are quoting all get discounted by 75%, and yes, there will be a per-ride surcharge for Uber, Lyft and Taxis. The taxis, the yellow cab charge is basically I think it’s half what the Uber and Lyft charges. Ubers, Lyfts are now close to half of the congestion in the Central Business District. We don't have anything against anybody. We just need to deal with the fact that, that surge in for-hire vehicles is impacting on basic functionality of our, of our business center and we need to deal with it.

Lehrer: Right, which like the sewage overflow is a policy matter outside of the MTA’s control which, you know, has such massive implications, right? When they let a number of years ago Ubers and Lyfts continue to proliferate, rather than the old system where you know it was restricted to the yellow cabs and in other parts of the city the green cabs, where they have valuable medallions or ownership rights. And now the streets have been flooded with the Ubers and Lyfts. Bad for the yellow cab drivers. We’ve talked about that so much over the years. Devastatingly bad in many cases. Suicide promoting bad in too many cases and the traffic as well. But let me let me ask you about something you just said, which is that we’re back to as much traffic or more traffic as before the pandemic? And I'm curious if that traffic is different, because since people aren't coming into town to work in-person as much as before, is this mostly trucks? Is this the fact that the pandemic also started sort of the most contemporary age of relying on delivery for so many things? That it's much more trucks than it was in the past and fewer cars?

Lieber: It's a very insightful question. The answer is: No. Trucks are still only 4% or 5% of the total traffic, but they do have a disproportionate impact on congestion because of their size and their ability to maneuver and the fact that they get stuck on side streets, as you know. So that's one of the reasons that the charge for trucks, because of the impact on congestion, was proposed to be higher than for just a regular personal auto. But the question you're asking is the right one, which is where do we see diminishing vehicle travel in Central Business District and it's, you know, a small portion of the individual personal automobiles, 10% to 15%, and those Ubers and Lyfts. We want the yellow cab industry to bounce back, there's no question. But traffic is traffic. And we have to deal with all different components of it. Ubers and Lyfts, personal-owned vehicles and trucks as well. In the era that you're talking about where we're all more dependent on truck deliveries, we need to make sure that the trucks that have to be here to support our economies and get around, because right now everybody's spending a ton of time – wasting time – stuck in traffic, it's another reason for congestion pricing.

Lehrer: This is WNYC FM HD and AM in New York. WNJT-FM 88.1 Trenton. WNJP 880.5 Sussex. WNJY 89.3 Netcong, and WNJO 90.3 Toms River. We are a New York and New Jersey Public Radio. Our current conversation relevant to both sides of the river. As we are also livestreaming at WNYC.org with the Chair and CEO of the MTA Janno Lieber. And Louise in Brooklyn, you're on WNYC, hello, Louise.

Caller: Hi, Brian, and Happy New Year. Brian, my question is about congestion pricing. And I'm thinking of people who need to get into the city maybe on a daily basis because they need treatment either at Sloan or NYU. They are not healthy enough to be able to take public transportation. So, I just like to know if there's any kind of provision?

Lieber: Louise it's Janno Lieber at the MTA. Thank you for your question.

Caller:  Yes, sir.

Lieber: It's a good one. I'm a Brooklynite too. I think I hear that sometimes from my neighbors. That issue is actually studied by this separate board that looked at what the prices and exemptions ought to be and what they found, and the chairman talked about this, is that most forms of coverage especially for low income and moderate-income people, do you cover transportation, medical-related transportation. So that was their, and they also were concerned about the ability to document a valid medical need. So that was their recommendation, that we not deal with that. I also said, you know I have a lot of friends who work at NYU Hospital at Mount Sinai and so on. And what I told them is, hey there's a simple way you can guys fix it. Why don't you have a, instead of charging people $30 bucks for the first half hour to park and $45 for the full hour, why don't you have a validation system for your own parking facilities for people who really need to come, instead of looking at this as a profit center for the people who don't have that medical transportation covered. So most people should be able to cover it with their health care insurance, but for those who don't, I think the hospitals shouldn't look at parking as a profit center, and we'll keep pushing on that.

Lehrer: From Louise in Brooklyn, we go to Brad in the Bronx. You're on WNYC with MTA Chair Janno Lieber. Hi, Brad.

Caller: Hi, how are you doing? I come in from the Bronx every day by motor scooter and I know it's going to be an $8 charge. And I know that $8 I guess goes back to the MTA. But I do not want to take the subway in to work every day. It's always late, its slow, I'm always late to work, you know. So, I just don't understand why the congestion pricing for like motor scooters and more efficient vehicles is going to be implemented as far as the congestion pricing.

Lehrer: When you say motor scooter, not a motorcycle but something under that?

Caller: No, it’s licensed. It’s licensed. It’s like a 125 cc Vespa.

Lehrer: I see.

Caller: So, I will get the congestion pricing. Its, I think it's $8 to come in every day.

Lehrer: Yeah. I think $7.50 but something like that Chairman Lieber?

Lieber:  Yeah. Thanks for the question, Brian. Listen, you know, first I’ve got to push back a tiny bit on you and I hope maybe we'll win your business back at some point. Service is now better than it has been in 10 years and we're running a lot more service than we used to thanks to Governor Hochul who the last budget, last spring, found new money for the MTA so we could keep running as much or more service even with a little lower ridership, so pretty good. We're going to keep working on it to win it back customers like you. Now, on the on the congestion charge. Because you are right, you have a little less impact on congestion than a personally owned automobile, that's why this board that looked at the pricing and the exemption said that you ought to be half the cost of a car. So that was taken into consideration when you were, when they were looking at the pricing for scooters and motorcycles and so on. We also have for new Metro-North, I don't know where you live in the Bronx, but we're doing a project to turn the Hell Gate Line in the East Bronx into a Metro-North line as well and there'll be for new stations. So, if you're in that part of the Bronx, you'll actually have some more service on top of the subway service and Metro-North service that already exists. But give us a shot and we hope we’ll win you back.

Lehrer: If somebody goes in and out multiple times for business or whatever. Do they get charged each time?

Lieber: No.

Lehrer: Or can there be like a day pass?

Lieber: No, it's one charge per day.

Lehrer: Oh, it is?

Lieber: For the autos and the motorcyclists and so on. Because the caller was from the Bronx, I would just add that you know 90+% of Bronxites who commute to the CBD, to the congestion zone, actually do take transit. So, although your caller is totally, you know, we get that he's entitled to his opinion, there are a lot of folks who are voting with their feet for transit out of the Bronx.

Lehrer: The latest lawsuit is from the teacher’s union, the UFT, which is teaming up with Staten Island Borough President Vito Fossella. I would say the UFT and Vito Fossella agree on very few things in general. But they are suing together. I guess the official grounds is that you didn’t do another environmental review after you announced this latest version, to see what this version would have, as an environmental impact. But I imagine the real reason is because a lot of teachers, must commute into the city, to jobs they have to attend to do their work, I guess, otherwise why would the UFT go to court over this? What is your understanding of that suit and what’s your response to the claim of no environmental review done on the current plan?

Lieber: So, it’s the same claim, in substance, that was made in the state of New Jersey, which is – even though we did a 4,000-page, four-year review, and as I said, studied the traffic impacts and the climate impacts for the entire 28 county region, that nevertheless we didn’t do enough. The federal government already found that we did do enough and gave us the approval, but they’re contesting that. But listen, the bottom line is: For students, students don’t drive to work, they take the bus. So, less congestion is better for the students who are taking a bus to school in the Central Business District. It’s also better for students because when there are fewer cars and less congestion, they are less likely to be hit by a car, which is a huge problem in these highly congested neighborhoods. I don’t know how many, you know, this was allegedly done because there’s teachers in Staten Island who work in lower Manhattan. When you run the numbers, there are only 150 teachers who live in Staten Island who work in Manhattan, all over. It's like two dozen people who we’re talking about who are represented in this lawsuit by the UFT. Overwhelmingly, teachers and students take mass transit to the Central Business District, which, Brian, as you know, the Central Business District, Lower Manhattan, is the most transit-rich environment in the United States by a lot. It's got all kinds of subways and buses and commuter rail service. And people are voting to go there. We're just trying to, in effect, make it a safer and less congested environment.

Lehrer: Here's one text message that you will enjoy, hearing is actually supportive of congestion pricing. It says: “Us on the Jersey side of the river will also benefit from the reduced congestion. Downtown Jersey City is overrun with people driving into the city who could take transit but choose not to because driving is too cheap still. Congestion pricing is overdue.” So I'm sure you like that one. But then somebody writes?

Lieber: Let me?

Lehrer: Oh, go ahead. You want to talk about that one?

Lieber: Let me just say there were 40?  In that lawsuit the State of New Jersey filed against us, there was an amicus brief filed by 43 organizations from New Jersey that support congestion pricing. So that texter that you just heard from actually represents a lot of people. They don't get as much coverage, but there are a lot of folks. New Jersey also benefits because everybody who comes to the city on New Jersey Transit, most of them actually then get on the MTA. So, if we are using the congestion pricing revenues to improve the MTA, New Jerseyites are going to benefit. That's part of the story, too.

Lehrer: By the way, another listener texts a thank you to the previous caller, Brad in the Bronx, for the following. The listener writes, “scooter guy,” because Brad says he drives a motorized scooter into town, “scooter guy doing the right thing and not taking the bike lane.” So, let's hear it for motorized vehicles not taking the bike lanes.

Lieber: Amen.

Lehrer: Listener writes, and then we're going to be at a time, “Why is there no Sunday exemption on the congestion charge? The day when the meters are off and traffic is light has traditionally given people an opportunity to handle personal business that requires a car without hefty fees.”

Lieber: It's a good question. Remember, I was talking about the overnight exemption instead of the weekday. The overnight discount ends at 5 a.m. On the weekends it ends at 9. Why is there still a congestion charge from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sunday? The answer is because there's still congestion. That's what we're trying to affect. People still drive into the city. We still have problems with congestion on the weekend. We're not like other cities where the downtown is dead on the weekends. The downtown in New York, thank God, is hopping. And part of that is we have to deal with congestion as a fact.

Lehrer: So, when does it start?

Lieber: Listen, we're ready. We have like way more than half of the infrastructure, all the cameras and all the back-office technology installed. We're going to be ready to go in, probably, May. We've got our contractors. Doing all that work is on schedule. The real issue is, one, we have to get through what they call the State Administrative Procedures Act, which is more hearings and more process before we enact it. And we have to see where we are with these lawsuits if any judges are going to try to stop us from implementing the system. Those are the two factors.

Lehrer: So lawsuits could be years. You don't know yet, right?

Lieber: No, I don't view it quite that way. Because I'm confident that this is an easy case on the law. But listen, there are a couple of lawsuits ad that's part of the answer of when are we going to start. Our plan is to start it, as I said, in the late spring, probably late May, June, thereabouts. But we got to get resolved these lawsuit issues, right.

Lehrer: There is still an open window and a formal public comment period. You know, when you're on The Brian Lehrer Show, it's always a public comment period. But to get those comments in, all these questions that people have, through formal channels, that window is still open?

Lieber: Yeah, we have. As I said, this State Administrative Procedures Act requires us to hold hearings and those will happen in February. Starting February 29, there are four hearings scheduled. I think we put out a schedule for them in the last week or so. So people can write in, they can communicate on social media. There are all these different avenues for people to comment. And there will actually be in person and online public hearings starting in late February on Leap Year. Leap Year Day, February 29.

Lehrer: Let's do it on February 29 once every four years. Janno Lieber, CEO and Chair of the MTA. Thanks, as always, for coming on.

Lieber:  You bet.