No one will ever accuse Albany of moving quickly. Two months and three weeks after Gov. Andrew Cuomo nominated Joe Lhota to serve as the next MTA CEO and Chairman, the State Senate finally voted to confirm him to the position. The vote, replete with two short committee hearings and plenty of grandstanding from Senators, carried with no nays, and Lhota will officially assume his role atop the beleaguered authority.
After the confirmation vote, as politicians issued their perfunctory congratulations, the governor was so happy that his nominees were approved that he didn’t even mention Lhota by name. “New York will benefit from the leadership and experience of these dedicated public servants,” Mr. “I Am The Government” said of Lhota and two other public authority nominees. “These new members of the administration will transform the state’s transportation and energy infrastructure while creating jobs for New Yorkers. I thank Majority Leader Skelos and Senators Fuschillo, Dilan, Ranzenhofer, Perkins, Maziarz, Parker, and DeFrancisco for the expeditious confirmation process.”
Lhota, who, as an executive at Madison Square Garden, rode the subway daily from Brooklyn Heights to Manhattan, pledged to be a “rider-chairman” during his hearings and said as much after the fact. “As a life-long New Yorker and transit rider, I understand the importance of the MTA to New York’s economy and the responsibility of being chairman,” he said. “I’m grateful to Governor Cuomo for his nomination and to the Senate for its support, and I look forward to creating a more efficient and effective MTA for our riders and New York taxpayers.”
In a sense, efficiency and effectiveness were the key words that emerged from two hours of Senate confirmation hearings. Lhota stood before first the Senate Transportation Committee and later the Senate Finance Committee as he withstood petty complaints from some of the more narrow-minded Senators and bigger-picture concerns from the few representatives in Albany who seem to understand the importance of and current problems with New York City’s transit system. From complaints about weekend service changes to rats to particularly groans about specific stations, the Senators in Albany basically reenacted what would have happened had 20 random straphangers gathered in a room to grill Lhota. Both the new Chairman and the State Senators tried their best to avoid controversial big-picture topics of government structure.
A few moments from the hearings, though, are worth our attention. The first key moment involved an exchange between Lee Zeldin, the Long Island Republican so hellbent on ripping away billions from the MTA budget, and Lhota. Every the payroll tax avenger, Zeldin said he wanted the MTA to be so accountable “for the taxpayer dollars so there isn’t a need to use taxpayer dollars at all.”
Lhota would have none of it. “There is no way the MTA can operate without taxpayer dollars. The entire operation of the MTA cannot be paid for from the riders,” he said. “It was never envisioned that way.” Throughout the hearings, Lhota repeatedly had to inform State Senators that the MTA is likely the most transparent authority in the state with voluminous budget materials available for all to see and constant audits and oversight from the city, state and federal government. These are things State Senators should know.
In another moment of candor, Eric Adams from Brooklyn’s District 20, which ends across the street from my apartment, placed much of the MTA’s problems on Albany’s shoulders. “If we want to get New Yorkers out of cars, then we need a first-class transportation system. Albany has not done enough,” he said.
Yet, as Streetsblog’s Noah Kazis noted, it wasn’t clear what would be enough. Lhota, who wasn’t there to take controversial stances, declined the opportunity to argue for bridge tolls with dedicated transit revenues. Albany, he said, determines the MTA’s funding equation, and those are decisions for state representatives to address. Instead, Lhota pledged to do the most with what the MTA has and be a better communicator — noble, if bland, goals.
Of course, no day in Albany would be complete without unnecessary references to a tired cliche, and here Lhota acquitted himself nicely. During the Finance Committee hearing, Lhota said it was time to cease repeating eight-year-old claims proven false about two sets of books. “It needs to end,” he said. “It was nothing more than a marketing gimmick by a former state controller who didn’t know what he was talking about.”
Later during the full Senate meeting on Lhota’s nomination, Velmanette Montgomery praised Lhota for the wrong reasons. She said she was pleased to hear that the MTA would no longer be keeping two sets of books because the incoming chair said “it needs to end.” That is, of course, a gross distortion of Lhota’s words but a clear sign of the kind of inept representation we enjoy in our state capital. Why listen today if you’re not going to listen for the next decade?
After the hearing, Lhota even had to clear up Montgomery’s SNAFU. “There were never two sets of books,” he said adamantly to reporters. “There will never be two sets of books.”
Ultimately, Lhota emerged from Albany displaying a measured sense of calm and a keen understanding of the MTA’s system and the challenges it faced. I was originally skeptical of his appointment as he was an executive with little background in transit, but if he’s willing to be more than a Cuomo “Yes Man,” I think he could do a good job as the new MTA CEO and Chairman. I might not be a true believer yet, but as Lhota walked away with the nomination, I was impressed. He handled himself well in the face of the same old, same old in Albany. If anything, it was a good start to a tough job.