When Gov. Andrew Cuomo nominated Joe Lhota to head up the MTA, transit advocates were surprised. Lhota was a behind-the-scenes numbers guy for Mayor Rudy Giuliani and an executive with Cablevision and Madison Square Garden with no real transportation experience to speak of. Yet in his brief tenure as MTA Chair and CEO, he become a vocal advocate for transit in New York City, conversant in the ins and outs of the MTA’s daily operations and its complex budget and a staunch supporter of its post-Sandy recovery efforts. I thought he could have been a very effective MTA head had he stayed, but the press coverage from the storm had him dreaming of Gracie Mansion.
I had guardedly high hopes for Lhota’s campaign. Here, after all, was a mayoral candidate who saw first-hand what happened when the city’s transit system shutdown. He recognized the importance of both restoring service and keeping open lines of communication with the millions of New Yorkers who depend upon the trains each day. He fought for external dollars and internal efficiency. He understood it.
As a mayoral candidate, though, transit and transportation have not been Lhota’s strong suits. It’s unclear if he’s simply playing to a base of Staten Island voters vital to his mayoral chances and other pockets of GOP voting blocs that aren’t as sympathetic to transit or the MTA, but one way or another, Lhota as MTA head was far more appealing that Lhota the mayoral candidate.
Earlier this week at Capital New York, Dana Rubinstein took a look at Lhota’s move away from transit advocacy. Here’s her take:
Months before Hurricane Sandy propelled Joe Lhota into the public eye, and then into a run for mayor, the then-M.T.A. chairman expressed hope that the subway system would be an issue in 2013. “I do believe that people are focused on this,” he said, in March of last year, referring to the M.T.A.’s precarious finances. “It’ll probably be a very big item during the mayoral race next year.”
Now Joe Lhota is the Republican nominee. And he is not talking about the M.T.A.’s finances in any sort of serious way. Which is not to say that he’s not talking about it. He thinks the M.T.A. should drop billions on a subway extension from Republican-heavy Bay Ridge to Republican-heavy Staten Island. He’s also in favor of reinstituting the commuter tax, but to fill the city’s coffers, not the M.T.A.’s.
The former Giuliani deputy who served for a year at the helm of the transit authority now wants the city to wrest control of the money-making Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority and reduce tolls for Staten Islanders, even though those tolls subsidize the hurricane-ravaged subway system. He used to think congestion pricing wasn’t such a radical idea. Now he finds the very prospect of congestion pricing “draconian,” even though the latest version to make the rounds of New York’s power circles includes a toll-equalization scheme that would benefit, among other constituencies, drivers on Staten Island.
As others Rubinstein spoke with noted, some positions — such as congestion pricing — aren’t tenable for a mayoral candidate with serious hopes for a primary victory. Furthermore, with city control over the MTA somewhat limited, the mayor can speak until he’s blue in the face about transit advocacy and policies without actually being able to do much. Still, I’d rather see a candidate support a sensible approach toward transit investment and development than backtrack on a year’s worth of progress.
There’s plenty of time for Lhota to change his tune, and I’m not convinced that Bill de Blasio is any stronger on rail and buses than Lhota could be. But as Rubinstein explores, this is as close to an about-face as one can imagine. Election Day is a week after the one-year anniversary of Sandy, and the Lhota who became a household name after the storm doesn’t yet appear to be the same Lhota as the one who will be on that ballot.