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How Subway Boss Grappled With Transit Nightmares During ‘Darkest Hours’ of COVID

Sally Librera was planning to leave her job as head of subways at New York City Transit, June 29, 2020.
Sally Librera was planning to leave her job as head of subways at New York City Transit, June 29, 2020.
Jose Martinez/THE CITY

During the peak of the pandemic, the alerts would come to Sally Librera at all hours: Somewhere in the sprawling subway system, a transit worker had tested positive for COVID-19 — meaning large groups of employees would have to stay home.

“In some cases, those decisions were made in the middle of the night,” she told THE CITY. “In some cases, those decisions were made even though it meant that we were going to have dramatic impacts to service the following morning.”

Librera, the first female head of subways at New York City Transit, on Monday recalled those “darkest hours” during the coronavirus crisis as she prepared to announce Tuesday that she is leaving the key post on July 24.

Her departure after 16 years at the MTA and just over two years as head of subways comes as the system begins to slowly rebound from months of misery and record-low ridership due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The last four months were certainly among the darkest hours for the subway system, among the darkest hours for the city and challenging in ways that none of us could have anticipated,” Librera said. “But I think I’ve never been prouder of the team or prouder to be part of a team than I am of the subway organization.”

A ‘Heroic’ Job

Worker illnesses have piled up during the pandemic — at one point, close to 40% of the nearly 30,000 subways workers were quarantined or out sick.

More than 130 MTA employees — including 86 subway workers — have died from COVID-19 and a train operator was killed while on-duty in a late-March subway fire authorities believe was set intentionally.

“I cannot imagine a single person in subways who wasn’t dealing with some form of grief or anxiety on a personal level,” Librera said. “Still, all of these team members came together to deliver in such a heroic way for the city.”

At its lowest point, weekday subway ridership sank to a little more than 360,000 trips on April 13, down by more than 93% from one year earlier in a system that last year averaged close to five-and-a-half million trips on weekdays. As of Friday, subway ridership had climbed up to 1.1 million trips, according to MTA figures.

Cheeky signage in the subways, here at the Utica Ave. station, illustrates how to properly cover your mouth and nose.
A screen at the Utica Ave station illustrates how to use a mask, June 5, 2020
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

“COVID hit us in a number of ways all at the same time in that darkest period,” Librera said.

She said the biggest challenge to keeping service going was when a single positive test for COVID-19 at a location in the subway system would force many workers to be quarantined.

“We couldn’t with certainty say who had been exposed and who hadn’t been exposed to that individual,” she said.

From ‘Brink of Disaster’

Librera’s departure comes months after Andy Byford resigned as head of New York City Transit. On Monday, he took over as commissioner of Transport for London.

Frank Jezycki, the chief operating officer for subways, will take over Librera’s senior vice president of subways the role on an interim basis.

“Enormous experience, already the go-to person if Sally’s not available,” said Sarah Feinberg, the interim president of New York City Transit. “We’re very comfortable with him stepping in.”

Still, Feinberg said Librera’s loss is a significant one. Prior to the pandemic, Librera was credited with helping reduce delays and boost on-time performance.

“She brought this system back from the brink of disaster, and helped the system recover…” Feinberg said. “She cannot get enough credit for that.”

But MTA officials said even more trouble is ahead for the transit agency if another round of nearly $4 billion in federal emergency funds don’t come through to cover a massive operating deficit worsened by the pandemic.

“It’s everything,” Feinberg said.

Librera, who joined the MTA as a transportation planner in 2004 after starting her career as a high school teacher in San Francisco, declined to say where she is headed next.

“I’ve had nothing but amazing opportunities and experiences working in this organization,” said Librera, who was also the first woman to lead the Staten Island Railway. “I have a huge debt of gratitude to the teams that I’ve worked with along the way.”

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