Joe Lhota has resigned as the CEO and Chair of the MTA effectively immediately, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced today. Lhota had come under fire from ethics watchdogs (including Reinvent Albany) for holding multiple jobs, including a spot on the MSG board, that could conflict with his duties at the MTA, but he had stressed as recently as two weeks ago that he was not planning on stepping down, despite rumors to the contrary. Fernando Ferrer will again assume the role of interim MTA Chair, a position he held following Tom Prendergast’s 2017 departure from the MTA’s top spot.
The news broke as Mayor Bill de Blasio was on the air for his weekly spot with Brian Lehrer, and he was just as surprised as anyone else. The mayor, apparently, had not been given advanced warning of the resignation. “There are clearly a lot of other leaders at the MTA who can carry forward the work but no one is going to get the work of fixing our buses and subways done if we don’t have a permanent funding source,” he said. “They need a plan from Albany, and they need accountability.” He spoke further of a new “culture of accountability” – an argument with which I agree.
This is of course Lhota’s second premature departure from the MTA. He stepped down at the end of 2012 to run for mayor and returned to the MTA in mid-2017 after Prendergast left his post. Lhota’s current term was scheduled to run through June of 2021.
For the MTA, Lhota’s departure continues a period of tumultuous turnover atop the agency. Since Peter Kalikow served out his full term in the mid-2000s, the MTA has seen five or six permanent MTA CEO/chairs — the Dale Hemmerdinger/Lee Sander hydra, Hyperloop’s Jay Walder, Lhota the first time, Tom Prendergast and Lhota the second time — and only Prendergast served for more than two years. With a number of interim heads in between, this creates a real leadership void at the MTA and uncertain for agency heads. Oftentimes, new MTA Board chairs prefer to select their own agency heads (though hopefully Lhota’s successor opts to retain Andy Byford).
Lhota leaves amidst a tough time for the subway. The MTA has instituted a significant subway action plan that officials claim has halted an increase in delays, but the number of delays and unreliability of service remains high. No one who rides the subways believes any of problems have been solved and more loom with the L train shutdown less than six months away.
The Wall Street Journal, first to break the story this morning, had more:
In a statement, Mr. Lhota said he took the position for the “sole purpose of halting the decline of service and stabilizing the system for my fellow New Yorkers.” He touted an $800 million emergency repair package that he crafted in his first month, as well as a new executive team he put in place.
In September, the number of total train delays fell to the lowest point since February 2016, Mr. Lhota said. “There is still a long way to go to achieve the performance that New Yorkers demand and deserve,” he said.
The state official said the governor’s team and the MTA would immediately begin a search for a new chairman. The search comes at a time of turnover in Mr. Cuomo’s administration: Commissioners of three state agencies acknowledged this week that they were leaving their posts, and more departures are expected.
In a statement, Gov. Andrew Cuomo praised Lhota. “Joe Lhota has dedicated decades of his life to public service culminating in two tours of duty at the helm of the MTA,” he said. “He stabilized the subway system, appointed a new leadership structure to completely overhaul the MTA, and led with a steady hand during some of the agency’s most challenging moments. In short, Joe demonstrated time and again why he was the right person for the job. I am deeply grateful for his service to the State of New York. In accordance with MTA bylaws, Vice Chair Fernando Ferrer will serve as Acting Chair while we prepare to name a permanent replacement for when the Senate returns in January.”
Off the cuff, Lhota’s departure gives Gov.
Andrew Amazon Cuomo, the state official who is definitely in charge of the MTA, a chance to think outside the box. He’ll need to find a strong champion for transit at a time when the MTA job is often considered lose-lose in the industry, and he could use this opportunity to seek out diversity atop the ranks of the MTA Board, a long-overdue move for the MTA. Cuomo has also said he will make the appointment before the State Senate returns to session in January, a break with precedent as he has sat on prior MTA appointments in the past. With Byford’s Fast Forward plan in need of funding and a 2019 fare hike on the horizon, the MTA cannot afford to be without permanent leadership for too long, and the newly-empowered Democratic State Senate will have to confirm anyone Cuomo nominates for the job.
More to come.