Meet New York City’s new Train Foster Mom

Sarah Feinberg has been tapped as the interim transit chief.

Interim Transit President Sarah Feinberg

Interim Transit President Sarah Feinberg Metropolitan Transportation Authority/Patrick Cashin

New York City wept when ex-New York City Transit President Andy Byford announced that he was stepping down from the position. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has begun the search for his replacement, but his are big shoes to fill. Byford laid the groundwork to transform the subway system through his Fast Forward plan, and significantly improved on-time performance. 

While the agency conducts its search, MTA Chairman Pat Foye has tapped MTA board member Sarah Feinberg to fill the role on an interim basis, who will step away from the board when she starts on March 9. Feinberg worked in the Obama administration before Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed her to the MTA board last year. She spent two years running the Federal Railroad Administration and worked as the chief of staff for the federal Department of Transportation before that. Feinberg spoke with City & State about her priorities, her support for an increased police presence in the subway and her fears about biking in the city. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s it like to take the reins from Andy Byford, New York City’s “Train Daddy?”

I just feel lucky to have gotten to work with him over the last year, but also gotten to work with the transit team and observe and applaud them for the improvements they made over the last years. This is probably the best job in transportation in the country. It’s so exciting, it’s so challenging, it’s so hard, but it’s so worthwhile. 

How long do you think it will take to find a permanent replacement, and are you being considered to be that person?

I don’t think we know how long the interim lasts. I’m planning for at least several months. I have a small child and this job is 24/7, 365, so given how these jobs tend to go, my sense is that it would not be a tenable job for my young family. If it is tenable, I would certainly consider it.

What are your plans, your top priorities, for however long you serve in this role?

Obviously, one of the top priorities is to help recruit a world-class leader who will run the system permanently. But other top priorities: the workforce here has made unbelievable progress over the last few years. Job number one is to continue that progress and even improve upon it if I can. I talked a lot about the safety and security of the system. I think we need to improve that. People will know that I've been a strong proponent of putting more police in the system. Crime has ticked up in the system in a way that makes me uncomfortable, and I think that makes others uncomfortable. And ADA compliance and improving system in terms of accessibility is going to be a really big priority for me too. It's something that's close to my heart and something I spent a lot of time on long before (I joined) the MTA.

Any specifics you can offer on improving safety and ADA compliance?

We’ve made some good gains on ADA compliance in the last several years, and obviously the plan for 70 stations is a huge step in the right direction. But we still really have a long way to go. Part of the problem is the length of time that it takes to make a station accessible, the amount of money it costs. I’m not the first person to come up with the idea that it should maybe take less time to make a station accessible and less money to make a station accessible, but hopefully that’s a place where a fresh set of eyes might help a little bit. 

The 500 new officers at $250 million caused a lot of backlash among transit and criminal justice advocates.

It surprised me a little bit, to be honest. I think the onus is on us to do a better job communicating about it. It's hard when the agency is the size that it is, the board is the size that it is. 

Would you be willing to listen to suggestions from criminal justice advocates on alternative ways to address subway crime, like attempting to address underlying societal issues?

I’ve said from the beginning, and it’s actually been my position throughout my time in public service, is I’ll meet with anyone, I’ll take a call from anyone. I share my email address. I have an open-door policy. I do not think that I have the market cornered on good ideas. I don’t think people I agree with necessarily have the market cornered on good ideas. I am, of course, happy to have those conversations. I do think we have to come up with a resolution that we’ve got a bunch of folks who are using our system to commit crimes. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a backstory to that human being. But I think it’s really important that we end up in a place where we’re improving safety.

What would you say to the concerns over reports that Gov. Cuomo micromanaged Byford to the point of resignation, and suggestions that you as the governor’s MTA board appointee would not be sufficiently independent?

Honestly, I think a lot of this is people searching for a problem where there isn’t one. Number one, anyone who's running something like the largest transit system in North America, you do have a level of independence because you have to make decisions in real time and people execute them. I don't have any sense that anyone's micromanaging someone who is managing a 51,000-person workforce with a multibillion-dollar budget, and who’s making real-time decisions about how the system is working. I'm originally from Charleston, West Virginia. The current governor of West Virginia is a Republican governor, who's in the middle of a lawsuit because he basically doesn't show up to work. And I frequently use him as an example of why the opposite is so important and is such a blessing for people like me and for people who care about transportation. To have a hands-on governor that's on your side is a dream come true for someone who is in my line of work. I have a very good relationship with the governor. I find the fact that he is focused on transportation infrastructure issues to be a huge blessing in the work that I do.

But the governor is not a transit expert. You are, and that’s why you’ve been appointed, so is it important to remain independent, to a degree, from the governor?

I started the last question by saying I think anyone in the role is independent. I don’t feel like the last person in this role was particularly micromanaged. I don’t expect myself to be micromanaged. That said, I’m going to double down saying that it’s important that a governor be hands on.

How do you get to work every day?

I usually take the subway. Sometimes I walk. Every now and then I’ll take a bus. But right now I’m, oh gosh, about a 95% subway person. When it’s really good weather, I’m more like 60% subway, 40% walking.

Ever take CitiBike?

You know, I don’t. And that’s probably just the scaredy cat in me. I have never had strong enough nerve to bicycle in New York City. I would be comfortable on truly protected bike lanes, like on the West Side Highway. My husband does sometimes and it makes me nervous. I’ve spent too many years in transportation policy, the thing that makes me nervous is there are so many drivers that are on their phones.

So are you a supporter of safe street initiatives?

Oh my God, yes. There’s not too much you can do in a place like New York City.

Byford has been dubbed “Train Daddy.” Are you expecting any new nicknames? Are you now Train Mom?

I will let New Yorkers call me whatever they want, as long as they keep using our system and continue to have patience with us while we do our best to improve it.

Correction: Due to a transcription error, City & State initially ommited several words from the answer to the last question.