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.