Sarah Feinberg is focused on the subway’s survival

Interim NYCT President Sarah Feinberg at the scene of a fire aboard a train at the Central Park North - 110th Street station.
Interim NYCT President Sarah Feinberg at the scene of a fire aboard a train at the Central Park North - 110th Street station.
Marc A. Hermann/ MTA New York City Transit
Interim NYCT President Sarah Feinberg at the scene of a fire aboard a train at the Central Park North - 110th Street station.

Sarah Feinberg is focused on the subway’s survival

The New York City Transit chief has hope for the system’s future. The challenge is getting there.
April 22, 2020

Sarah Feinberg is only two months into her tenure as interim president of New York City Transit, and it’s no exaggeration to say that she’s taken on the role at one of the most perilous moments in history for New York City’s subway and buses. The coronavirus pandemic has upended life as we know it for all New Yorkers, but the virus’s toll on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority – and the workers who are keeping bare bones transit service running – is especially devastating. As of April 22, 83 MTA workers have died from the coronavirus, and thousands more have been quarantined.

The MTA is also in desperate financial straits, as it anticipates a more than $7 billion deficit in its operating budget this year, and hopes for aid to come through from the federal government to help plug that hole. With a hamstrung budget and diminished workforce, future capital improvement projects for the MTA – including critical upgrades for the subway – could be in jeopardy. City & State checked in with Feinberg this week to talk about what New York City Transit needs to survive, how workers should be regarded as first responders and what she’s looking forward to when New York finally gets back on track.

The last time City & State spoke to you was as you were just about to take over as interim transit chief. I imagine this has been a pretty unique start to a new job?

Yeah. I mean look, I think it’s been hardest on our workforce and their families and their loved ones, and the ones who have been ill, and who have been on quarantine, and those who have been showing up to work every day and fighting through it. I think it's been hard all around on everyone. Just as it’s been extremely hard on New York. But New York City transit workers are very much first responders in instances like this. So I think this workforce is really bearing that burden right now.

Just this week, more than 5,000 MTA workers returned to the job after being quarantined. Is that a sign of some good news amid tragic circumstances?

Yeah, the folks who are coming back are folks who were either ill and have recovered and are now returning to work, which is obviously a wonderful news, or they were folks who were quarantined after an exposure, and then were home and stayed healthy, and are now back to work. Either way, it's obviously great to have so many people back to work. We hopefully – fingers crossed – have moved past the apex and onto the plateau and hopefully are going to continue to make improvements from here. Hopefully, those numbers just continue to improve in terms of people who are back, and smaller and smaller numbers of people who are out. Generally, if you’re here, that means you’re healthy. And that means we can give you (personal protective equipment) and you can continue to do your work and go home safely to your family at night.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said this week that people will be very wary before getting into a crowded subway car again. Is that how you feel as well? Is that hesitation concerning to you?

I think it's hesitation about everything going forward. People keep saying that this is unprecedented. But it is an unprecedented crisis for all of our generation. So this is a new normal that's going to take a lot of getting used to. I think people will naturally be hesitant about getting on public transportation, just like they're going to be hesitant about going to a restaurant, or, you know, going to the library or going to a mall. I think everything is going to feel a little bit different. But at some point, New York is one of those places where it just has to continue to function. People will have to continue to go to work, and New York is not a place where people can just fall back on vehicles, for example. Many people don't own a car. Not everyone can bike, not everyone can walk. So I think that people will continue to use public transit and it will be incumbent on us to make sure that we've done everything we can to make them feel safe, and feel like they have both the knowledge about what we're doing to keep them safe and have the ability to take some control of their own situation to make sure that they're taking precautions to be safe too.

The MTA has asked for $3.9 billion more in federal aid to help deal with the operating budget deficit. How important is getting those funds when it comes to ensuring that state of good repair work, including signal modernization, continues?

I think it's important for really anything to move forward. It’s important for state of good repair projects, it's important just to keep this system operating. We did not go to Congress and ask for billions so that we could build fancy projects that will be needed far into the future. This is the reason that things get put into stimulus bills and into emergency relief bills – because they are emergencies, and so that you can continue to keep the lights on and keep running trains. State of good repair certainly has to be a priority and a consideration because it's how we keep the system safe and operating.

Moving past the projects that keep the system operating, is there a concern that other capital projects – station accessibility upgrades and buying new buses, for example – will fall by the wayside in such a severe budget crunch?

I am not, and I’ve been cautioning others not to spend a whole lot of time, in this moment in time, worrying about those projects that are farther down the road. The reason is this: It’s very hard to worry about large, big, future priorities when you’re in the middle of a fight for your life, survival crisis. When you're hanging on by your fingernails, you need to focus on hanging on by your fingernails and pulling yourself up to the ledge, right? Not, you know, what you're going to do next week once you've been safe for a while. I think everyone is worried about their favorite project or their biggest priority. What I have said is we need to survive. We need to get through the next couple of weeks, then we need to get through the next couple of months. I don't think anyone is going to try to kill a specific project or a specific group of projects without going through a pretty significant review process with all the stakeholders. I don't think anyone should be worried about waking up one morning and being surprised that something that they care about is gone. But speaking personally, I have no intention of allowing anyone to argue to me in the coming years that we can't do accessibility projects because of that crisis we had in 2020. That’s not something I'm going to have any patience for. 

A handful of City Council members have called for a shutdown of the subways and buses. Is there any sort of contingency plan that that would be a part of, or is that just never going to be on the table?

It's not going to be on the table, particularly now. I feel like that letter maybe got lost in the mail two or three weeks ago. We have contingency plans for everything and so it was certainly something that was looked at, just like we've had to shut down in the past for very short periods of time for storms and things like that. We always have a contingency plan in place as needed. But we are past the apex, we’re on a plateau, our workers are coming back. I’m the last person who will suggest that we've gotten to the other side of this. We are very much still in it. We are all very much in the bottom and coming back up, but to be talking about (a shutdown) now feels misguided to me. 

Cuomo recently called on the federal government to provide hazard pay for front-line workers, including transit workers. Is that something you think might actually come from the federal government?

Absolutely. Last week, I started talking about the importance of hazard pay. I think our workforce has displayed unbelievable leadership and unbelievable hard work through this crisis. It's time for the federal government to step up, and it's time for Congress to take some significant steps. Certainly, they did a few weeks ago. But these kinds of crises, these slow-moving car wrecks, these long instabilities lend themselves to multiple big bills and multiple big plays by the Congress. (U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck) Schumer and others have talked about hazard pay. The governor has called on the Congress to pass legislation that could look like the post-9/11 legislation, the heroes Compensation Fund. I’m supportive of all of that. It’s a good moment, I think, for the Congress to step in and decide to take a big step hre.

Now I know you said you’re focused on survival and not looking too far into the future, but thinking about the future for just a minute, what are you most looking forward to about getting back on the subways?

Well, I’ll get back on the subway in about an hour. (Laughs.)

I should say, what are you looking forward to about getting New Yorkers back on the subway?

I'm looking forward to the system being busy again, to those things that have felt annoying to all of us in the past – the crowds and the jostling. I will be so happy to see a station that's busy again and to see people rushing around, clearly focused on going to their Friday evening plans or getting home to their families or rushing to get to work, because it'll be a sign that the city is back. 

Annie McDonough
Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.