Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to reshape MTA leadership didn’t unfold exactly as he wanted — but he is, for now, installing one of his picks atop the turbulent transit agency.
Janno Lieber will serve as acting chairperson and CEO, Cuomo said Thursday, even as he pushes state legislators to split the top jobs. The governor had proposed dividing the titles between Lieber, currently head of MTA construction and development, and Sarah Feinberg, the outgoing interim chief of New York City Transit.
Lieber, a respected construction and federal government veteran credited with keeping transit improvement projects going during challenging times, has been with the MTA since 2017. He previously led Silverstein Properties’ efforts to rebuild the World Trade Center site for over a decade.
“At this critical time in state history, I believe the best long-term approach to leading the MTA would be to have two strong, experienced leaders at the helm,” Cuomo said in a statement.
But with legislation that would make Lieber the CEO and Feinberg the MTA chair stalled — and with current chairperson Patrick Foye departing after a little more than two years in the post — Cuomo was required by state law to fill the top job.
‘World-Class Talent’ Needed
The reshuffling once again leaves a vacancy atop New York City Transit, the MTA’s subway, bus and paratransit division that has run through five presidents in less than a decade. Feinberg had been in the role on an interim basis since February 2020, after popular Andy “Train Daddy” Byford resigned following repeated clashes with Cuomo.
“The open question now is New York City Transit,” said Rachael Fauss, a senior research analyst with Reinvent Albany, a watchdog group. “It’s going to be important for it to have independent, stable leadership.”
John Samuelsen, international president of the Transport Workers Union and an MTA board member, told THE CITY that Lieber will need an “expert on service delivery” to replace Feinberg, who has a government and communications background.
“Here’s the conundrum for them: They’re going to have a difficult time attracting world-class talent into New York City Transit after the way Byford was mistreated and chased out of town,” Samuelsen said. “What would have been looked at as one of the best jobs in the worldwide transit industry has lost its luster with that mistreatment.”
Lisa Daglian, head of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, praised Feinberg for “dedicated and focused leadership” during the transit agency’s darkest pandemic days, but said an acting replacement must be named as soon as possible.
“There are very talented people at New York City Transit who are certainly capable of serving until a permanent president is named,” Daglian said.
Feinberg kept the “interim” title during her entire time as head of New York City Transit and Lieber has now had “acting” added to his existing titles.
“It is an appalling state of affairs that so many people are interim and that so much talent has left,” said a transit source who asked not to be identified.
Staying on Track
Lieber steps into the top job at the MTA after being praised for keeping hundreds of construction projects going during the pandemic, including accessibility upgrades at 11 subway stations. He was also central in shaping the transit agency’s next $51.5 billion capital plan.
The five-year plan that Lieber unveiled in 2019 prioritized improving accessibility for riders with disabilities, upgrading signals along stretches of several subway lines and improving the fleet of subway cars.
Lieber has been a proponent of more collaboration with private businesses and city agencies to put more MTA stations into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“It’s an idea that our team has been working with City Planning for a couple of years on,” Lieber said in March. “We think it’s very exciting because it could deliver elevators and ADA accessibility at additional pace.”
Advocates and MTA insiders praised Lieber for his work on transit construction projects.
“He is someone who can step into the breach and tackle hard things right away without much of a learning curve,” said Danny Pearlstein, policy director at Riders Alliance, an advocacy organization. “The work he’s done on bringing down elevator construction costs, on signal repairs, those are the things riders need most.”
The cuts, which the MTA has labeled “right-sizing,” could come by 2023 despite receiving more than $14 billion in federal COVID relief funding.
“We are still facing a crisis on multiple fronts,” Pearlstein told THE CITY. “Service delivery is a big one because it’s what gets people into transit and keeps them there.”