Since earning an appointment to the MTA, Joseph Lhota hasn’t said anything at all to the press. He co-signed a letter to New York City district attorneys concerning assaults on MTA employees, but he won’t be giving one-on-one interviews to the press until after his State Senate confirmation hearing. Instead, we’re left with the public record of a one-time Giuiliani official who has little transit experience and has spent the bulk of the past decade in the private sector.
Today in The Times, Michael Grynbaum unearths a gem. During the 1999 brouhaha over a controversial art exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, then-Deputy Mayor Lhota discussed his views on MTA control in a sworn deposition. As Grynbaum reports, Lhota espoused a view that has generated some debate over the years:
In 1999, while serving as Rudolph W. Giuliani’s deputy mayor, Mr. Lhota stated in a deposition that if he had his way, the responsibility for New York’s subways and buses would lie fully with City Hall, not with the state. “I do wish we controlled the transit authority,” Mr. Lhota said at the time. “I have gone to Albany constantly in my capacity as budget director, because I don’t think the way the transit authority works with the City of New York is very appropriate.”
Reminded of his comments in a brief interview on Tuesday, Mr. Lhota laughed, groaned and then said emphatically that he no longer held the same position. “I believed it then,” he said. “I don’t believe it now.”
…On Tuesday, Mr. Lhota cheerfully conceded that under the Giuliani administration, he was occasionally frustrated by the city’s lack of oversight of the transit system. “It is a matter of perspective,” he said. “I think that statement was consistent with what most budget directors in New York would have said.” But he added, “I do believe the management of the M.T.A. is in much better shape today than it was then, and I do not subscribe to the same thoughts.”
The context and Lhota’s comments are nearly incidental to the idea that has long since plagued New York: Who should be in control of the New York City subway system? For the first half of subway history, New York City was responsible for the subways. Mayor La Guardia oversaw an ambitious reunification plan that brought the IRT and BMT under direct city control, and the Board of Estimates set budgets and fare policies.
Although it made sense for the city to oversee its transit network, the bureaucratic and political structure was rife with problems. Candidates for office turned the subway’s nickel fare into a campaign issue, and from 1904-1948, the fare remained five cents even as inflation devalued that nickel. Eventually, thanks to overly ambitious plans to build out the IND lines and the declining fare revenue, overseeing the subways nearly drove the city to bankruptcy.
When the state assumed control of the subway system and eventually created the MTA, it did so for purposes of financing. Surplus from the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority helped cover the subway operating deficit, and eventually the state folded the regional transit network — including buses and commuter rail — into the MTA in an attempt to streamline operations. Without proper legislative support and authorization, it hasn’t always succeeded.
At this point in time, we know of the problems with the MTA. The state legislature refuses to own the problems; New York City disclaims as much interest as possible. It is at once everyone’s and no one’s problem. If the city were to assume control of the subway, as Lhota proposed in 1999, the state would quickly roll back a lot of funding, and the city would have to find those dollars. On the other hand, any such rollback could come with an expansive home rule grant that could allow the city to toll bridges or institute congestion pricing without Albany approval.
For now, of course, nothing will happen with MTA control. The state will continue to maintain its oversight, and the city, which isn’t interested, won’t be arguing for a larger role in subway management. It’s been that way for nearly six decades, and it won’t change any time soon.