The new acting head of the MTA told Newsday that under his watch Long Island Rail Road passengers can expect shorter, more reliable trips to work, new amenities at train stations, and incentives to lure back riders who stopped commuting during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But while several Long Island leaders have expressed their confidence in Janno Lieber, the future of the agency's new acting chairman and chief executive officer remains unclear, given that he was appointed by former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo just weeks before his resignation. New Gov. Kathy Hochul has not said whether she plans to keep Lieber, whose nomination needs to be approved by the State Senate.
Lieber has said he'll leave it up to politicians to decide his fate and is focused on leading the nation's largest transit system.
Much of Lieber's Long Island agenda will be carrying out major infrastructure initiatives that he was leading as the agency's infrastructure guru, projects that already were underway.
In a Newsday interview, Lieber said that before joining the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, his familiarity with Long Island was limited. Growing up in Manhattan, he’d occasionally visit Belmont Park or Jones Beach. But it’s been in the last four years, while heading the LIRR Expansion Project, that he’s come to appreciate Long Island’s role in the region’s economy, he said. Better known as the Third Track, the project aims to construct a 10-mile third track between Floral Park and Hicksville.
"The railroad’s relationship to Long Island is incredibly deep. Each of the communities, because of the branch system, has an investment in the railroad in the way it connects them to the rest of the region and, especially, to each other," Lieber said. "I’m really excited about what’s happening here because Long Island is getting the benefit of the megaprojects in a way that maybe nowhere else is."
Lieber said the railroad's megaprojects will play a critical role in Long Island’s future, including by boosting new residential developments for young people and senior citizens, facilitating travel to high-paying jobs in Manhattan’s Midtown-East district near Grand Central, and allowing for a "reverse commute," wherein New York City residents travel to jobs on Long Island.
The MTA first has to lure back thousands of LIRR commuters who left during the pandemic. While realizing that some percentage of lapsed riders will continue to work from home, Lieber said he is confident the authority can win back some.
The keys to that goal, Lieber said, are improved reliability on the LIRR, which has set on-time performance records in recent months, and an improved experience at stations, including the planned 350,000-square-foot terminal at Grand Central, and a revamped Penn Station that will emulate the sleek, new Moynihan Train Terminal across from Penn.
"I think it’s going to raise the spirits of the Long Island Rail Road commuters, who have been really loyal, but have had to put up with a not-great experience at Penn," Lieber said of the planned Penn Station redevelopment, which he has spearheaded at the MTA. "I think that gives Long Island commuters the sense that they really are a top priority for everybody in the region."
In the short term, Lieber said the LIRR must come up with a new ticket type that reflects that "at least for a while, there are going to be fewer people who want monthly passes." He said the railroad also could come up with "short-term incentives" and "welcome back specials" for lapsed riders.
The LIRR is carrying, on average, about 120,000 people each weekday — a little more than 40% of its pre-pandemic ridership.
Lieber has taken on two roles
In one of his last major leadership shake-ups, Cuomo last month appointed Lieber, a Brooklyn resident who had been serving as president of MTA Capital Construction, to replace Patrick Foye, of Port Washington. Cuomo wanted to split the positions of MTA CEO and chair into separate jobs, and appoint another ally, former MTA bus and subway chief Sarah Feinberg, to the latter position. But the State Legislature blocked the plan, and Lieber has taken on both roles.
The MTA has not disclosed Lieber's new salary, but Foye made about $360,000 as CEO.
Lieber, 59, has so far steered clear of the controversy surrounding Cuomo, other than to make clear that there is "absolute zero tolerance" for sexual harassment at the MTA, and has sought to assure the public that he is the right man for the job.
Lieber joined the authority in 2017, after leading the redevelopment of the World Trade Center. He was quickly credited with streamlining several of the MTA’s delay-plagued megaprojects, including the LIRR’s East Side Access link to Grand Central Terminal. He also jump-started the LIRR’s long-stalled effort to build a third track on its Main Line through Nassau County. Both projects have remained on track under Lieber’s watch.
At a November event in Westbury marking a milestone in the Third Track Project, then-Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul suggested Lieber’s middle name should be "Otub." "What’s Otub? ‘On-time, under-budget,’ " Hochul said.
But Lieber also has had his detractors, including LIRR union leader Anthony Simon, who criticized the former MTA infrastructure chief for prioritizing progress on Cuomo’s pet projects above all things, including the safety of the authority’s workforce. The criticism followed a string of safety-related incidents at LIRR project sites earlier this year.
"I think that’s where he has to change his tone. Yeah, you want to move things fast, but now you’re going to see, as the chairperson, you need to listen a little bit more," said Simon, who has vowed to work with Lieber and give him an opportunity to prove himself "as long as he’s here."
The uncertainty among some about Lieber’s future is a reflection of his ties to Cuomo, who in May referred to the new MTA boss as a "community-oriented Robert Moses." In his resignation speech earlier this month, the former governor singled out Lieber as a member of his "team" and thanked him by name.
Bringmann: 'Perfect guy for the job'
LIRR Commuter Council chairman Gerard Bringmann hopes the affiliation with Cuomo is not held against Lieber, whom Bringmann called "the perfect guy for the job."
Bringmann, who works in construction, said he’s been "extremely impressed" with Lieber’s leadership of major infrastructure efforts on Long Island, including bridge replacement projects carried out over single weekends.
"If he can do that, I feel like he could probably do anything," Bringmann said of Lieber. "And I feel like he has the right temperament for the job. He’s polished enough to work with the politicians. But, also, you don’t get that type of construction work done without being a tough guy, too."
Matthew Cohen, president and CEO of the Long Island Association, a business group, called Lieber a "seasoned professional" who is uniquely familiar with Long Island’s megaprojects and their benefits.
The Third Track will increase the railroad's capacity to run trains, and reduce the impact from service disruptions. East Side Access could shorten the commutes of LIRR riders traveling to and from Grand Central Terminal by 40 minutes each day.
"He knows the Long Island Rail Road. He understands our challenges and our opportunities," Cohen said of Lieber, who has spoken at LIA events. "I know that he appreciates that the vitality of the Long Island Rail Road is important for the downstate economy."
Assemb. Ed Ra (R-Rockville Centre), who has collaborated with Lieber to advance the Third Track Project in his district, credited him for keeping the project on schedule and for working with local communities to "remove those obstacles" that stalled it for years.
But after being part of Cuomo’s "inner circle" for years, Lieber will have to show he can run the agency without meddling from the governor’s office, Ra said. To do that, Lieber will have to address long-standing spending and deficit issues at the MTA, and address ongoing concerns about overtime abuse and fraud among some LIRR employees, Ra added.
"You have, hopefully, an MTA going forward that can be more focused, without that interference that we saw for many years," Ra said. "I think the way he overcomes that is that he shows that he’s overseeing a different MTA from top to bottom — setting a climate from the top of the organization that there’s going to be accountability."
MTA leader’s Long Island To-Do list
Among Janno Lieber’s many priorities in his new role as chief executive officer and acting chairman of the MTA will be advancing several initiatives affecting Long Island. Here are some that could be on his list:
- Bringing back LIRR riders: After bottoming out at just 3% of pre-pandemic levels, passengers gradually have returned to the LIRR, which is now carrying just over 40% of 2019 weekday ridership. Lieber said he hopes to lure back more riders with an improved commuting experience, and introduce new ticket deals for riders, including part-time commuters.
- Completing the megaprojects: After being debated on Long Island for more than half a century, two key LIRR infrastructure projects are scheduled for completion by the end of 2022. East Side Access will link the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal, and the LIRR Expansion Project will build a third track along the Main Line in Nassau County. It will be up to Lieber to bring both projects across the finish line.
- Fixing Penn Station: Lieber has led the efforts to improve Penn Station, including by widening walkways and raising ceilings. But riders still complain about the conditions in the Manhattan transit hub. Lieber is pushing for a more extensive renovation that could include removing part of the upper level. Riders also want the MTA to better address homelessness and panhandling at Penn.
- Straightening out finances: A $14.5 billion federal bailout of the MTA has allowed the agency to avert major service cuts caused by the pandemic, and put off a planned fare increase until at least next year. But both options remain on the table in the future unless Lieber can work with lawmakers to create a new, recurring revenue stream for the MTA. Some ideas include a gas tax and new fees for tourists.
- Coordinating with LI bus providers: Nassau and Suffolk are undergoing studies of how they can improve their transportation networks. Officials with both counties have spoken of the need to improve connectivity with the LIRR, so that bus arrivals at train stations are more closely synced with train arrivals. Lieber could work with NICE Bus and Suffolk County Transit to increase use of all the systems.
- Cracking down on overtime abuse: Following revelations in 2019 of alarmingly high overtime rates among some employees — particularly at the LIRR — the MTA enacted several overtime controls. Still, more than 700 MTA workers more than doubled their regular wages with overtime last year, and 19 made more than $200,000 just in extra pay. Lieber could further rein in unnecessary costs.