‘We have to get ridership back:’ An argument for why congestion pricing will happen

In an interview with City & State, Metropolitan Transportation Authority CEO Janno Lieber discusses why the controversial tolling program will ultimately win over New Yorkers.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority chair & CEO Janno Lieber announcing the Federal Highway Administration issued a finding of no significant impact after completing an environmental assessment on congestion pricing in Manhattan during a press conference at the NYU Kimmel Center on Tuesday, Jun 27, 2023.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority chair & CEO Janno Lieber announcing the Federal Highway Administration issued a finding of no significant impact after completing an environmental assessment on congestion pricing in Manhattan during a press conference at the NYU Kimmel Center on Tuesday, Jun 27, 2023. Marc A. Hermann / MTA

Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chair and CEO Janno Lieber has been talking about congestion pricing for months in the build up to the new tolling plan’s implementation on June 30. If successful, which Lieber insists it will be, congestion pricing will deliver funding to maintain New York’s century-old subways, as well as finance major capital improvement projects that are critical for the transit system’s continued operation.

Lieber has expressed confidence that congestion pricing will move forward, despite facing legal challenges that could delay the tolling plan’s rollout. In an interview with City & State, Lieber described why it’s the perfect time, on a policy and political level, to proceed with a bold initiative like congestion pricing, what the MTA plans to do about noncompliance and other focal points for the transit system, including increased service and efforts to battle fare evasion. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How are you so confident that this is the right time to roll out congestion pricing? 

Let me just quickly sketch out how we got to where we are. At my confirmation hearing, I was asked, “What are the issues?” and I said the following: We have to get ridership back, to get the city back in action, because it was still early days in our recovery from COVID-19. I said we need to deal with the fact that we have a huge shortfall of workers now, and that our on-time performance was certainly not impressive. We were looking at a $3 billion fiscal cliff. We had safety questions. We had congestion pricing, for which of course, we had been stymied by the Trump administration. We were just starting the implementation process, although it had been passed more than two-and-a-half years earlier. And we had a capital program that was dead in the water, because during the pandemic, we couldn’t really ramp it up. We didn’t know if we were going to have to cannibalize all the capital. And state Sen. Liz Krueger, who is very wise, said, “Why would you want this job?” And I said, because every one of those challenges is absolutely fixable. If you’re a passionate New Yorker who has been in the transportation business like me, this was the ultimate opportunity to put New York back on the track. We have a governor who really gets that mass transit is where it’s at. Chuck Schumer, leading the Congress, is passionate about New York and mass transit. We have a governor and mayor who are actually functioning and getting along. So this is the opportunity to do great things. Let’s get it going. What have we done since then? Ridership, if you account for the fact that there is more fare evasion, but in terms of real ridership we’re at 80% on subways and we’re pushing 90% on buses, versus our pre-COVID numbers. Commuter rail is around 80%. And we filled all our vacant jobs. Do you know how long It takes to hire and train a bus driver, train operator and conductor? On-time performance on the subways is the best it's been in 12 years, and the commuter railroads are out of sight at 97 1/2 blended. MetroNorth alone is at 99% Crime is down compared to pre-COVID. We still have these high profile crimes that we're dealing with, but we're also doing what New Yorkers want us to do, which is to deal with the problem of seriously mentally ill people in the subway system, in the public space. The governor led us to an operating budget solution. The fiscal cliff was dealt with. Every other transit system in the United States is still struggling with that issue, especially New Jersey where they are raising fares and it's not clear if they solved the budget deficit. And the capital program, we're knocking out the projects. As Jamie Torres-Springer made clear to the Daily News, it was a tremendous accomplishment in terms of on time, on budget execution of major capital projects. I won't drag you through it. Transit is one of the strongest areas under Governor Hochul’s leadership and one of the success stories of how we can fix things if we attack them issue by issue and have goals and execute on them. One of the reasons we're able to do that is this political constellation. It hasn't always been such that we had pro New York City, pro transit leadership, not just in the governor's office and the mayor's office, but also the houses of the legislature. Carl Heastie, I've gone with him to 241 and Gun Hill Road. I mean, he's a transit guy, his constituents ride. Stewart Cousins is passionate about Metro North and the transit system. Gianaris, and on and on and on. These are New York transit people. You got to take advantage of this moment to build a coalition. In the echo system of New York, there used to be a lot of good government groups. Now, the good government groups aren't as significant as they used to be. Whose significant? Riders Alliance, RPA, Tri-State Transportation Campaign, the PCAC.

Congestion pricing, to your question. It's widely misunderstood that Janno Lieber came up with this idea after a drinking binge. It's actually the law of the state of New York, and we are an implementing agency. And consistent with everything I just told you, we're about getting stuff done in a professional manner. We did all of that wacky, detailed analysis that's required by the feds. They looked at 4,000 pages of homework and they said, “Yes, you studied everything. It's perfect.” And they gave us an A plus. Now we're dealing with how to get ready to execute it. We got all the infrastructure ready – A plus.

Now, we’re checking that we have adequate mass transit. There’s so much extra room for the 20,000 people who are projected to switch from automobiles to transit – A plus. We're adding service. By the way, we've added service all across the MTA system  – A plus.

We're 100% ready for congestion pricing. It’s the real world and litigation is the way that a lot of people pursue political issues now. And, you know, to me it's amazing that Phil Murphy is suing Joe Biden in a presidential election year. That's up to him. I never would have thought that Phil Murphy would be on the same side as Donald Trump in an issue where the federal government is trying to advance a climate change-oriented, progressive issue. But here we are. Just like we've addressed every technical issue and every operational issue, we will also address the legal issues and congestion pricing is ready to go.

Are there going to be any kind of compliance challenges that the MTA could face with congestion pricing, like drivers obscuring their license plates? How do you counter that? Any plans to work with law enforcement?

It’s not a secret. The MTA has made the world aware of the way that, not just because of congestion pricing, but generally, there’s a breakdown of compliance. We see it in fare evasion, but we see it in toll evasion. We’re the ones who have brought attention to the issue of people just zipping through, obscuring license plates and not paying their tolls. We’re the ones who started the practice of massively stopping vehicles which are violators. We are highlighting the enforcement. We have gotten Gov. Hochul, with the Legislature, to give us more power to enforce on toll evasion. We now have the ability to go straight to judgment, which means that the sheriff, once we get a judgment, can go pick up your car. The sheriff can go to your street and pick up your car because you’re a massive toll evader. So we’re pushing hard on the issue of non-compliance and in the era of congestion pricing, we're going to be tough on it. We owe it to the people of New York, who are otherwise getting cheated out of hundreds of thousands of dollars and millions of dollars.

What lessons were learned from congestion pricing when it happened in other cities like London and Singapore?

I think the principal lesson that we all have to bear in mind is there's enormous political and public drama as you approach the implementation of congestion pricing, and then in most cases it dissipates. Because people see there are real benefits. I think that when we're anticipating a similar dynamic here. As traffic goes down, we really hope that people will say, hey, this was a good idea and has real benefits, although it obviously costs some folks a little bit of money. And the whole story of the devastating evils that are going to come into place, the claim that people are not going to go to Broadway, because after they spend their $400 on tickets and $300 on dinner, the thing that will hold them back is the $15 charge. Not to mention the cost of parking is ridiculous. People will see that all of these fake, alarmist scenarios are nonsense and that life goes on and we have a little less traffic, and that enables even the people who have to drive, the ability to move a little more quickly. That is a good thing for New York. It's good for air quality. It’s good for drivers. It's good for safety on the streets. It will be a net benefit. I think that's what will happen. 

Are there conditions where you can suspend congestion pricing? For example, during natural disasters, emergencies or public safety incidents? Are there contingency plans in place?

There is some provision for that, but what I think New Yorkers really want to see is that the negative consequences of having the worst-in-nation traffic are being addressed. Your government is reacting to the reality that we have to do something when ambulances can’t get to hospitals. That’s the real emergency. There’s no hypothetical emergency that outweighs whether someone can get to a hospital when they’re having a heart attack. That’s what we’re dealing with. People are going to be happy to see that being addressed.

Switching gears here, how are you cracking down on fair beating, and is there a chance that the district attorneys could take a more aggressive approach? What technology or infrastructure changes are you exploring to reduce fare evasion? Is part of the answer having more low income riders sign up for discounted fares?

Fare evasion is a big problem now because it has grown from being a $200 to $300 million problem annually pre-COVID to what’s now a $700 million problem. That's real. It's also a problem because it demoralizes riders. People who pay say why am I a sucker seeing everybody walk through the gate. We can't have that. And there's also a tipping point problem where everybody will feel like they’ve got to do this, and it creates a sense of disorder in a public space where you really can't have that feeling. People are not going to feel safe if they see everybody breaking the rules, before they even get on the subway, right? For all those reasons, it's a real issue. Two years ago, I sounded the alarm on this, in March of 2022, and put together a commission, and they said a couple of things. One, we got to deal with the physical infrastructure and we are doing that. We are adjusting turnstyles so that back-cocking is harder, and it's harder to jump over. But the big issue is the exit gate, which is required by the Fire Code Authority. We’re piloting an initiative with Fire Code Authority approval to have the exit be delayed, so people don't use it. Because once it's open, people walk in by the 10s and 20s. We're also changing those exit gates on an experimental basis. We've got an RFP out for new turnstiles that will form more of a physical barrier. On the gate again, we have put security guards who literally block the gates, so people don't use it to exit and won't allow people to come in. So we have a range of different initiatives. Bottom line is we all have to recognize that this is a serious problem. It’s not a joke.

The DAs can and should be part of the solution. We want them to start by first, just for public safety reasons, to deal with the problem of recidivism in the subway system, violent crime, people who are stealing and come back again and again and again. There are 100 people who have something like 12,000 priors who committed crimes last year, they need to be addressed. But what I really need the DAs to deal with on fare evasion is we need chronic recidivists to be addressed, the people who are using the fare system as a criminal racket, those people who break the machines and then sort of shake people down to pay them to walk through the gate. There's a whole world of that. Those are what we call the fare evasion enablers. Those are the people we want them to crack down on first. And then we think that it's time to dispense with Cy Vance's very mistaken idea that fare evasion is a victimless crime. It's not. It's stealing from other New Yorkers. It's destroying the value system of our shared public spaces. And most importantly, it creates this sense of illegality and disorder in the system. That is scary to people. I’m not talking about first time fare evaders. We have proposed giving them a warning rather than a fine. We want to cut the fines for people who sign up for Fair Fares so fair evasion is never a crime of poverty. But when you have people who can pay, and in many cases, wealthy people in wealthy neighborhoods who just make it a habit to waltz in with their $8 latte in their hand and not pay, I think that it's time for the DAs to take action and I hope they will.

The governor lawmakers recently finalized the state budget, any highlights for the MTA in the spending package, like increased state funding for express buses, ahead of congestion pricing?

The two big things we asked for was money for more service. Express buses are operating at about 40% capacity. We are not talking about not having enough room on the buses. What we want to do in a couple of key neighborhoods is to have a little more frequency so people who are considering using that as an alternative to driving would see it as being a little more attractive, especially from Staten Island. In Staten Island, there’s 80% mass transit ridership when people are going to the central business district in Manhattan, but we want to make it even more attractive. The second thing we got was the power to crack down on toll evasion. A third thing restructuring the fine system so that it is not a crime of poverty for people who do fare evade and sign up for Fair Fares. They get a break on the fine. To turn one time or two-time fare evaders into paying customers, that's what I want to do. We want to get kids in the habit of paying their fare when they're teenagers by giving them a better deal on Department of Education bus passes and subway passes to deal with fare evasion.

Let me move on to a question about the third track. How has it delivered for the LIRR?

Third track was a 10 mile long project dealing with all kinds of stuff, a really complicated project. It was not just the track, but you had sound walls. You had structural changes. You had a whole new signal system, a whole new power system. And the third track project, which was completed on time, $100 million under its two-and-a-half billion dollar budget, together with Grand Central Madison, has allowed us to grow service on the Long Island Railroad by 40%. There's a ton more service. It's also a reverse commuting service, so people can go get jobs out on Long Island, which is great for the Long Island economy, great for New Yorkers to have more access to jobs. And with 950 trains a day, rather than 650, we are now operating at 96% on-time performance. It's really an impressive outcome.

And while we're doing all this extra service, the MTA, in real terms, is operating at 3% lower budget than pre-COVID. So we've added literally 77,000 weekday trains a day on the Long Island Railroad and countless trains on the subway and yet our budgets have actually gone down. That's because we're carving inefficiency out of the MTA. 

When can we expect the four new Metro-North Railroad stations slated for the Bronx to be completed and what’s their expected impact?

It’s a tough project because it’s operating on an Amtrak right of way, which means that the schedule is dependent on Amtrak giving us the supervisory workers and their own workforce, so the contractors are allowed to get work done. But it is a great project. It means that people in the East Bronx, which do not have subway service, do not have rail service; I’m talking about Co-op City with 60,000 residents; Parkchester, almost as many; Morris Park and so on. They will have rail service for the first time. It’s a visionary project that puts a whole new set of neighborhoods on the transit map, and it’s going to happen. It’s going to take a few more years. But what I love about that project is you don’t have to dig a new tunnel every time you want to add new service. Let’s get more transit out of the infrastructure we have. So that project takes an Amtrak right of way, where no one ever stopped in the Bronx, and turns it into a commuter railroad line with four tracks so people in the Bronx can get service out of that railroad. It’s a great transformation.

I want to get back to congestion pricing. When it comes to addressing some of the concerns that have been raised, can you give any specifics on how funds will be spent on environmental mitigation in the Bronx and other areas?

Congestion pricing money is going to generate $15 billion that is going go for basic stuff that the transit system needs, including ADA accessibility at many, many more stations, having the A train, one of the longest lines in our system, re-signalled so that you can run more trains on it more reliably, and adding electric buses that are going to help us get rid of diesel buses. We're going to turn the whole bus system into zero emissions. We’ve got to get started now. So there's really high priority stuff it's going to pay for. But the system also will pay for mitigations of some of the impacts. Now, important to know, the federal government found  – this is Joe Biden's government – that there was no significant impacts from the project. Because traffic moves around in a couple places, there's going to be a little bit more traffic in those places. That’s why we are investing in things that will actually help to offset that. Whether it's investing in air purification devices that can go into the schools, getting trucks converted from diesel to clean trucks, or getting rid of all those diesel refrigeration units in the Bronx. We're also going to give some of that money to five census tracts in the Newark, New Jersey, area that are impacted. We're being fair to everybody. New Jersey qualifies. Staten Island qualifies a little bit. Parts of Manhattan qualify, and so on. And those allocations, which are strictly based on the numbers and the analysis, are now being reviewed by the federal government to determine whether that is all compliant with the original finding of no significant impact. I'm confident we'll get it. 

Our capital projects being prioritized in areas that will be most affected by congestion pricing, for example in transit deserts?

Transit desert is a word that I think is slightly misleading in most cases. Everywhere in New York, almost literally every neighborhood, has high quality bus service. The question is, do they have rail service? What we're doing is trying to connect buses to where there’s a commuter rail station on the Long Island Railroad, Metro North in the Bronx, and make sure that people have easy access to the rail system if they're coming to, for example, Downtown Manhattan where there are a lot of jobs located. We're making the capital program invest in a lot of things, and most importantly, in just keeping this $1.5 trillion system  – that's trillion with a T – from falling apart. It's 100 to 200 years old, depending whether it’s the subway or the railroads. You need to invest in a huge asset like this, otherwise it's going to fall apart. But we also need to invest in things to make sure it doesn't go underwater in the era of climate change. We announced that we're going to invest in making the whole system able to have more capacity, and that's going to serve all these neighborhoods. We're redesigning the Queen bus system and every borough’s bus system, and that's going to cost more money. So more service, more connectivity to rail and all different kinds of services that don't exist today. All those things are going to help. Don't forget there are literally 20 million jobs in the region and only a million and a half of them are in the central business district. We're serving people working in jobs between Brooklyn and Queens, as much as coming to jobs in Manhattan. So we're not just focused on congestion pricing. We're focused on serving the economy and mobility in the whole region and equity as well.

Does the MTA support the state legislation to expand bus service and the free bus pilot in light of the coming into the station of congestion pricing?

We support more service. I'm in the transit business. I always want to run more and more and more. And you know we have to be mindful of cost. We don't want to run empty buses and empty trains. But more services obviously makes it even more attractive to use mass transit. So we're always welcoming that. I made it clear in some of my public statements that I have concerns about how at this moment, when we are trying to regain ground lost in the explosion of fare evasion, to further confuse our riders by having a lot of talk about free, free, free. I don't think that that is a great idea. And honestly, right now we have a system where we're subsidizing transit operations tremendously, and we're using money that's very progressive. It's like mortgage recording taxes. So big mortgages are subsidized. It’s already a system which is very progressively funded, and I don't see giving people who can pay a freebie as a strategy for making the system more equitable. I push targeted affordability, fair fares, discounts on the commuter rails for people who live in the city who can cut their commute if they take a Long Island railroad train rather than the E train, or Metro North from Fordham, rather than getting on the D train up there. So targeted affordability is our priority. Giving freebies to better off New Yorkers less so.