MTA head 'really burned' by New Jersey over congestion pricing lawsuit, calls NJ Transit 'crummy service'

Janno Lieber unleashed his frustrations with the Garden State while some New York lawmakers made their own complaints about his agency during a joint budget hearing on transportation.

MTA CEO Janno Lieber

MTA CEO Janno Lieber Marc A. Hermann / MTA

The usual cool-headed Metropolitan Transportation Authority CEO Janno Lieber slammed New Jersey regarding several issues plaguing New York City and state travelers on Tuesday. In Albany for a joint budget hearing on transportation, he took issue with some of the Garden State’s transit offerings and blasted “frivolous” lawsuits for holding back certain MTA projects.

“I’m really burned about this,” said Lieber.

He said New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has failed to make improvements and invest in the New Jersey Transit, which extends into upstate New York, all the while suing the state over congestion pricing. 

Congestion pricing is a toll for motorists who travel below 60th Street into Manhattan’s central business district. Last year, ostensibly to protect New Jersey’s commuters, Murphy’s administration launched a lawsuit against the federal government over its approval of congestion pricing and has refused to cooperate with New York's rollout of the new tolling system. 

“For reasons none of us understand they’ve got a $2 billion turnpike widening project that will just pump more cars in the Holland Tunnel which has no more capacity,” Lieber said. “So they’re creating a big old parking lot on their side of the river. This is a mystery. The substance of the lawsuit is kind of frivolous.”

Congestion pricing still sticks in the craw of certain upstate lawmakers who feel that residents who live in transit deserts are being unfairly penalized while commuting to work. “Rockland County residents have always felt like the redheaded stepchild of the MTA,” said State Sen. Bill Weber. Weber added that transit service to New York City was “inconsistent,” “unreliable,” and “unsafe” and asked Lieber if MTA could improve its service in Rockland.

After pointing out that New Jersey Transit offerings in the area weren’t “first class” services Lieber, said he supported more direct service from west of the Hudson River to Penn Station. He still thought the focus on congestion pricing was overblown.

“80-plus-percent of the folks in Westchester are taking mass transit so the exclusive focus on folks who drive to the central business district I just think is misplaced honestly,” he said later, before adding that no congestion pricing exemptions were being considered outside of people with disabilities and low-income New Yorkers. 

Some lawmakers took issue with the MTA’s procurement activity as the outer boroughs show a need for more transit options. “The MTA was supposed to buy 2,500 new buses,” said state Sen. John Liu. “Did we buy 500 new buses, did we buy 2,000 new buses…did we buy any new buses?”

Others questioned the MTA’s handling of extreme weather. Assembly Member Jonathan Jacobson said the two Metro-North train stops in his district, Beacon and Poughkeepsie, have had issues with floods in their parking lots. The MTA Jacobson said was not responsive.

“I did get a call back from somebody in your office and they said, ‘What do you want me to do about it, it’s climate change.’,” he said. “Well, I think we have to do something about it.”

State Sen. Michelle Hinchey said that while the MTA has been able to quickly address service issues caused by extreme weather in the past, large investments would be necessary going forward. 

Again Lieber saw an opportunity to criticize New Jersey’s transit apparatus. “We need to continue to invest in the Hudson Line,” he said, “because our friends west of Hudson are subject to crummy New Jersey Transit service on the Port Jervis and Pascack Valley lines.”

Lieber, despite his gripes, noted that New Jersey lawsuit and similar ones filed over congestion pricing, would have had real ramifications. “The issue is we have legal uncertainty, we can’t award our contracts,” Lieber said when asked if some remediation projects would be on schedule. 

In Gov. Kathy Hochul’s budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year, she would see the MTA’s funding increase by $140 million or a little over 5%. Throughout the conversation Lieber had with lawmakers it wasn’t clear if the Legislature took issue with that. What was clear was that these days Lieber was starting to lose his patience with New York’s neighbor across the river and its governor.