Within the cozy confines of New York politics, few positions are as potentially toxic as MTA CEO and Chairman. It is, essentially, that person’s duty to deliver bad news to New Yorkers who pay only casual attention to the inner workings of the agency’s politics and economics. Straphangers remember the service diversions and fare hikes; they recall the heat and the rats. They don’t remember the times the subways work as advertised, and they certainly don’t remember fondly those who oversee the comings and goings of the MTA.
With this in mind, it was always a surprise to me that Joe Lhota opted to use the MTA as a springboard to a run for City Hall. A former deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani, Lhota served as the MTA for around a year, and as far as operations go, he was one of the better leaders in recent years. He cut costs; he streamlined some operations; and, as we know, he was at the helm when Sandy hit. Though he generally implemented plans put in motion well before his tenure began, he received accolades for getting the system up and running so quickly. Pay no attention to the March fare hikes or the current 14-month shutdown of the R train’s Montague Tubes. Those are but collateral damage.
As head of the MTA, Lhota seemed to recognize that the agency needed a steadier stream of funding sources. He fought zealously in Albany for every single dollars, and he toed a hard net-zero line in his infrequent discussions with John Samuelsen, president of the TWU. As a mayoral candidate, though, Lhota has tried to put aside everything he preached and practiced at the MTA. His ideas have included a vague plan to send the R to Staten Island and a misguided park-and-ride proposal. He decided to run for mayor because of his success at the MTA, but on the campaign trail, he’d seemingly rather voters forget about that year.
In today’s Times, Matt Flegenheimer explores those contradictions. As Flegenheimer notes, Lhota “seldom trumpets his tenure managing the authority,” referring instead to his time with Giuliani and his years in business with Madison Square Garden and on Wall St. The Times runs down Lhota’s record:
Beyond the storm, Mr. Lhota’s record at the helm of the nation’s largest subway system was complicated, marked by nimble political calculations and, occasionally, unforced errors. He slashed hundreds of millions of dollars in costs from the authority’s budget and restored many services of the agency for the first time since deep cuts in 2010. He angered workers with whom he had once hoped to reach a contract agreement.
He proposed possible fare increase packages so unappealing — by design, some suspected — that the public’s disdain for the final product, a compromise measure, appeared tempered. He reinstated the popular “Poetry in Motion” program that published verses in subway cars, but his abbreviated stay left several longer-term projects, like a plan to replace the MetroCard, unfinished on his watch.
He apologized for remarks about a state senator (“he does nothing”), Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (who, “like an idiot” made misguided service predictions after Hurricane Sandy, he said) and a member of his own board, whom he assailed as a liar and challenged to “be a man” during an uncomfortably heated public meeting about the authority’s schedule. And he remained zealously fixed on possible system disruptions — a man, some suggested, who so thrived in a crisis that at times he seemed to seek one out — investigating subway accidents or delays that might have been handled several levels below him.
But the biggest problem of all, of course, is the fare hike. Although MTA budgetary policies were in place long before Lhota took over, he continued the practice of levying a fare hike very two years. He proposed a steep initial increase to make the preferred compromise seem better than it was, and he set the MTA on a course to continue fare hikes in 2015, 2017 and every two years for the foreseeable future. It’s tough to run as the former MTA chair; it’s tougher still to run as the MTA chair who continued to raise fares.
This view may not be particularly fair to Lhota. He made the best of a tough situation, and had he continued in as head of the MTA, I’m sure we’d be assessing his tenure in a positive light right now. But he’s running for the chief executive spot of the city. He’d have less control over transit policy but hasn’t shown a willingness to port over the lessons learned from the MTA to his mayoral candidacy. That’s the prism through which Lhota the candidate is viewed, and the current image isn’t a particularly flattering one.