Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Chair and CEO Janno Lieber made a live appearance on NY1 Mornings on 1 with Pat Kiernan and Jamie Stelter, on the 30th anniversary of NY1 going on the air, to discuss masks becoming optional in public transit, congestion pricing and other transit-related issues.
A transcript of the interview appears below.
Pat Kiernan: With us now in the studio, Janno Lieber, Chairman and CEO of the MTA. Good to have you with us this morning.
Janno Lieber: Good to be here with you.
Kiernan: Did the science change or did you just have to make a decision at some point that so many people were ignoring the mask mandate that it didn't make sense to have it on the book?
Lieber: Well, we're not the scientists or the epidemiologist. We defer to the federal and state authorities. The feds a couple months ago took the mask mandate off of mass transit and yesterday the State Department of Health, which is led by an eminent epidemiologist, Dr. Bassett, also removed the mandate for mask use on mass transit. But we're obviously encouraging people to use it – and most of all – we’re encouraging people to be respectful of the personal choice. Everybody's going to have their own preference and their own comfort level, and we want, like New Yorkers always do, for people to be respectful of each other but
Kiernan: But especially over the summer and it had gotten to the point where you went down on the subway, and it's certainly happened with my last few subway rides before yesterday, it was less than half.
Lieber: No question, it became harder and harder to enforce the mask mandate when bars and restaurants and offices have made it optional. So what we're seeing is tourists were coming in, which is great for New York, but they were coming from places where mask were not required. They were seeing bars and restaurants and other places not requiring masks. So it got really spotty. But in the end, it was a science issue. The public health professionals at the State Department of Health made the decision. The Governor announced that now - we're into a new phase.
Jamie Stelter: Well, and that's sort of where that slogan came from, right? “You do you” on all the signage, which has gotten a little bit of pushback. I don't find it particularly offensive, but a lot of people were sort of saying, you know what, why do you have to go and make a joke of it?
Lieber: Well, you know, part of our success in getting people to comply throughout the tough days of COVID was that we kind of put sort of a light touch in our signage. It was a slightly New Yorky voice, you know, encouraging people to use masks, without yelling at them. And we sort of continued that campaign. It was really successful. The mask force, the MTA volunteers who went out there and gave out masks and encourage people to work did a tremendous job. And we're just continuing the spirit of that campaign, which was really well received.
Kiernan: So for most of last week and the week before, we would come in in the morning and play back hours of congestion pricing public hearings, because there were a lot of hours of those hearings, and they were quite lively. This was what the Zoom screens looked like there. What do you do with that? What happens with all of that testimony – because in fairness to everybody who had passionate opinions, it was pretty predictable there. There are people who think the idea is a great idea. There are people who think it's the worst idea in the world. And it was just a question of how many signed up to express those viewpoints on any given day.
Lieber: Look, this is a process. It was the state legislature adopted congestion pricing as the law of the state back in 2019. We're now still in the middle of this environmental review process, which requires all these hearings and the collection of all these public comments. And then there's going to be a board, which is going to study all of the comments and all of the issues and make recommendations about pricing and discounts and exemptions. So this is going to take a while to play out. We're just trying to do it the right way, to make sure everyone feels like the issues have been raised and analyzed and their voices have been heard.
Kiernan: Those scenarios where people would be paying upwards of $20 were the ones that really attracted people's attention and some of those were expressed in documents that you put forward as part of this environmental review. How set in stone is that number?
Lieber: Listen, the issue is, remember, this range of $9 to $23, it depends how many discounts and exemptions are – in the end – given out at the recommendation of this Traffic Mobility Review Board, set up by the state. So, you know, if there are fewer discounts and exemptions, the base price is going to be lower. It's really that simple, because under the state law, we have to generate a billion dollars in order to support the MTA capital program. So that's really the issue, with the math of discounts and exemptions.
Stelter: And it has gotten better, but I still report from time-to-time limited crews are available. How is staffing, talking about back to school and back to work?
Lieber: You know it’s a really good point. We have done much better with what we call “service delivery,” which is making sure that every run of a subway or a bus is staffed. Over the years of COVID, obviously we struggled to maintain staffing. We've gotten in a much better position. Service delivery is up over 90% just in the last month or so. And we're really starting to make headway. Rich Davey, the head of New York City Transit, has really made it a priority.
Kiernan: And you've been able to find employees, it's a matter of training them now?
Lieber: Yeah, I mean, its obviously, bus driver training is faster than train operators and conductor training, but we're hiring a lot of people. The issue that we are struggling with honestly, is that since COVID began, we're getting a lot less availability. We have to work with our union partners to make sure that people are showing up for 200 days of work a year rather than 185, which is sort of where the number has drifted right now.
Kiernan: Before we wrap up, I want to get an update from you on Penn Station, because the Governor was there to announce that the next phase in brightening up Penn Station was completed. The whole project is not done yet. But this is what that new section looks like.
Lieber: Yeah, I mean, listen, this is a big milestone. You know, people have been pessimistic about Penn – and rightfully so. It has been frankly a dump for close to 50 years now. Low ceilings, narrow walkways, and claustrophobic. Governor Hochul said fix Penn now. We support the new tunnels to New Jersey, but what she said is, we can't wait 15 years to fix Penn now. This is the beginning of that progress: a brand-new concourse with much higher ceilings, doubling the width, new retail, it's going to change the experience of Penn Station. We just want to keep rolling into really fixing the whole thing.
Kiernan: Janno Lieber. Good to have you on this morning. Thank you.
Lieber: Good to be here with you. Congratulations on the 30-year milestone. I know you've been you've been here for almost all of it.
Kiernan: 25, yeah.
Lieber: And in New Yorkers really have come to rely on it, so congrats.
Kiernan: Thank you. Here’s to thirty more.
Stelter: Ehhhh we’ll see.
Kiernan: Thirty more would be a lot.
Stelter: Thirty more hopefully for the station, but maybe not for us.
Kiernan: Yeah, you’re right. The station.