Billions in federal aid have saved the city’s transit system from immediate financial ruin, but it still faces enormous challenges, and the MTA will need solid leadership to address them. Which is why Gov. Kathy Hochul would be wise to strip the word “acting” from Acting Chairman Janno Lieber’s title.
Lieber aims to treat the agency more like a business, and that’s key: The $14 billion in federal funds it’s getting from COVID relief bills will keep trains running for a few years, but then the money runs out — and the MTA will be unable to pay all its bills.
Ridership, and the revenue it generates, isn’t on course to return to anywhere close to pre-pandemic levels for the foreseeable future. The sooner the agency gets folks back on trains and buses, the sooner its cash flow can stabilize.
Lieber, an accomplished manager (he played a pivotal role working for developer Larry Silverstein in rebuilding Ground Zero after 9/11) gets that, and he’s focused on bringing back straphangers ASAP. It’s his “top issue,” he told The Post
That’s why he chose to hold off fare hikes for at least six more months: “Incentivizing people to come back means . . . we need to stand on fare.”
Lieber also knows his agency is “competing” for people who’ve gotten used to working from home. And a major impediment to their return is the “perception of disorder” on trains: Homeless and mentally ill people left untreated. Folks flouting the no-smoking rule. Addicts openly doing drugs.
He says he’s “super excited” about working with Mayor-elect Eric Adams and making police more visible in the system. Adams, he reports, told him: “I was a transit cop. . . . We’re going to get more officers in the system. . . . We want to deal with issues of disorder. We want to deal with the homeless and the mentally ill homeless, and get them services and get them out of the system.”
Fighting serious crimes, obviously, must also be a top order of business: Over the past year, straphangers endured a spate of shoving incidents. In October, a deranged attacker smashed a 23-year-old man in the head with a glass bottle at a Manhattan station.
Yet focusing solely on riders and farebox revenue won’t suffice: Lieber will also need to squeeze savings from transit unions in upcoming contract talks — ensuring pay raises are aligned with MTA revenues (anything else would spell insolvency) and bringing sanity to work rules (productivity increases can help fund pay hikes).
Another key issue: worker availability, a problem The Post and others have flagged. In 2018, for example, the average NYC Transit employee missed a whopping 54 days of work, fueling huge overtime costs.
True, luring back riders, ensuring their safety and paving the way for the agency’s long-term fiscal viability amounts to a very tall order. But the transit system is New York City’s lifeblood. Hochul (or whoever succeeds her in 2023) needs someone like Lieber to step up.