Home MTA Politics Pondering the next MTA head as rumors swirl

Pondering the next MTA head as rumors swirl

by Benjamin Kabak

Could one-time deputy mayor and current MSG exec Joseph Lhota be on the short list for MTA head?

My 10th grade English teacher had an expression that he would impart to us every month. On the tenth of each month, he would say, for all practical purposes, the month is now over. It’s not really a saying that makes much sense if you think about it, but it’s stuck with me throughout the years. As yesterday was the 10th, then, for all practical purposes October is now over.

For the MTA, though, the end of October will be a major milestone. By the end of the month, before the next three weeks elapse, Jay Walder, the current MTA CEO and Chairman, will depart for the greener pastures of Hong Kong, and the authority will be left with a new leader, its fourth over the last five years. At some point, Andrew Cuomo will name a successor, and that political appointee will have to balance a drive to move forward with the need to shore up a capital budget and looming labor negotiations. It’s not an easy or enviable job.

During his final board meeting at the end of September, Walder dropped some hints as to what qualities his successor might posses. “Whoever runs this organization should be dedicated to the organization,” he said. That person has to be “dedicate to what it does on a day-to-day basis. I think it is helpful to have a knowledge of mass transit. I don’t know that it’s an absolutely essential quality.”

Without naming names, the Governor issued a similar statement in September. “The MTA [CEO] primarily is an effective manager, and I think the ability to manage a complex process, that deals with highly technical services, in a political environment, in a large organization, at a financially strapped time, you know, that’s where we are,” Cuomo said. “To me, the management is very important. Of course, the technical expertise, but you give me a good manager, who can run an organization, and find efficiency, that this organization is going to have to find, that’s going to be paramount.”

Essentially, what Walder and Cuomo have both said is that the person atop the MTA command structure doesn’t need to be, first and foremost, a transit guy. Rather, he needs to be a management guy, and as long as he surrounds himself with a COO and agency heads who know transit, the organization can, in an ideal world, deliver the service while moving forward with improvements and streamlining the bureaucratic organization. You don’t need to be a transit guy for that; you just have to willing to listen to your transit people.

All of that is a roundabout way of burying the lead. Lately, I’ve heard one name bandied about in a few off-the-record conversations, and it strikes me as both an odd choice and one in line with what both Walder and Cuomo have said. Joseph Lhota, a veteran of city government and a current Executive Vice President with Madison Square Garden, appears to be on the short list of potential people to head the MTA. He’s an odd choice for an appointee by Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo because he was a long-time right-hand man of Rudy Giuliani’s. He served as Deputy Mayor for Operations for three years and as the city’s Budget Director for three as well. He was also a point person on Giuliani’s failed presidential campaign in 2007-2008.

As far as management goes, though, Lhota fits the bill. He’s a Harvard MBA with experience in city budgetary politics and governance and with nearly ten years under his belt as a higher-up with both Cablevision and MSG. Based on contemporaneous news coverage, he had some dealings with the MTA budget back in the mid-1990s and now serves on the CUNY board. Thus, he seems to know both corporate and governmental management. Personality-wise, he was called bombastic and outspoken in profiles written about him during the waning years of the Giuliani Administration but was also known as the softy during some bull-headed years.

Despite some whispers that Lhota could well be named MTA head this month, no one, of course, would confirm his place on the short list to me on the record so I’m relying on some rumors and speculation here. Even in the 2010 election cycle, Lhota donated to Scott Brown and Peter King, among other Republicans, and Cuomo, a Democrat with designs on a White House run, isn’t the type to reach across the aisle for such a key state appointment.

Ultimately, though, whether he’s chosen as MTA head or not, Lhota is simply a stand-in for the type of the person Cuomo seems to be eying. The next MTA head may come with practical political experience but no true transit background. If Walder’s successor is intent on reforming the MTA while installing or maintaining those who are knowledgeable in transit operations, such an experiment might work out. We’ll find out soon enough.

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John-2 October 11, 2011 - 8:04 am

Whomever Cuomo appoints as MTA chief will almost immediately be defined by two things — how he/she handles the upcoming TWU negotiations and how they also handle the first major winter storms after last Christmas’ debacle. It’s harder to predict or do anything about latter, let alone predict it, but for a guy who has his eye on the White House in 2016, Cuomo would want someone in that post with a political background who also understands the boss’ interests. In that way Lhota does make sense (and even his shift from bombastic to softy would do the governor well, if the governor wants someone who would both stand up to the TWU but at the same time not so much he starts alienating the moderate Democrats in the downstate area that’s really Andrew’s core base of support).

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines October 11, 2011 - 9:01 am

[…] Rumor Mill: Former Giuliani Lieutenant Joseph Lhota on Shortlist to Replace Jay Walder (2nd Ave Sagas) […]

Larry Littlefield October 11, 2011 - 9:34 am

It’s all about allowing the transit system to collapse, but doing it in a way that doesn’t affect the generations now in charge.

The new MTA head will have to declare most of the MTA Capital Plan, including ongoing normal replacement, an unneccesary luxury. And be willing to try to keep maintenance going on the things riders can see, while allowing only as much deterioration in the rest of the system to ensure the system remains viable for another decade or so.

He may also have to find a way to accomodate a 20/50 pension while allowing blame for its consequences to be deflected elsewhere. In fact, the next MTA head’s primary job might be to accept blame.

The decision as to where the transit system, and perhaps the NY economy, are going, has already been made. It could be unmade, but only by radical changes that would gore many powerful oxen.

Scott E October 11, 2011 - 10:26 am

I think the “bombastic and outspoken” quality would be a good one. If there was one flaw I have with Jay Walder (and the organization as a whole), it’s that the statements were choreographed, sanitized, lacking emotion, awkward, and ineffective.

If the MTA head were someone like Chris Christie who would speak his mind, could really battle the unions, would go beyond “transparency” and encourage accountability by bring MTA-related issues and abuses to the media, and could communicate the urgency of emergency situations to the riding public (“A major storm is coming, and soon you’ll have no way to get home from the Rockaways. Leave now! Get The Hell Off the Beach!”). I’m not suggesting Christie run the organization (he won’t), and I don’t know that Lhota is the right guy either. But the MTA needs someone who doesn’t just sit in his office and give directions via written memo.

Nathanael October 15, 2011 - 9:43 pm

Hmm. Walder’s quiet, underplayed style is popular in London and Hong Kong. I suppose Americans just like the bombastic more….

Andrew Smith October 11, 2011 - 11:45 am

“To me, the management is very important. Of course, the technical expertise, but you give me a good manager, who can run an organization, and find efficiency, that this organization is going to have to find, that’s going to be paramount.”

I believe that most studies on this issue have found exactly the opposite.

The person who runs an organization isn’t supposed to provide management at all. He is to provide leadership, to form a vision of where the organization is going and to hire managers who can execute that vision. Having your CEO manage people is like having him deliver mail, a waste of his time.

The only way to have a realistic vision of what an organization can do is to be a very bright and creative person, with a lifetime of experience in that industry. The notion that all you need to be is bright and good at “running large organizations,” as if all large organizations are the same, has been pretty thoroughly debunked, I believe.

Yes, some people can cross over industries and succeed, but they are very rare. Almost all superstar leaders spend a lifetime in the same business and even people who become superstars in one industry tend to be sub-average performers if they cross over to another. There are exceptions, but grunts promoted from your own industry generally outperform even stars imported from other industries, and no star is coming in to run the MTA.

Nathanael October 15, 2011 - 9:44 pm

“Yes, some people can cross over industries and succeed, but they are very rare.”

Elon Musk. Yeah, not common.

That sort of person never plays second fiddle to *anyone*.

Cuomo is not looking for that sort of person. I expect the worst.

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[…] resignation, all has been quiet from Albany on his potential replacement. Rumors have involved Joseph Lhota and a bunch of transit and transportation officials, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo has yet to make an […]

Should the next MTA head be a transit expert? :: Second Ave. Sagas October 13, 2011 - 1:09 pm

[…] have continued to swirl that former Deputy Mayor and current MSG executive Joseph Lhota will be named the next head of the MTA. At the bare minimum, we know that he’s in the running, and interestingly enough, he’s […]

Lhota named to replace Walder atop the MTA :: Second Ave. Sagas October 20, 2011 - 2:11 pm

[…] this year and must face a Senate confirmation process, first came to light as a potential candidate last week. At a time when the MTA must confront intense union negotiations and a multi-billion-dollar gap in […]


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