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New MTA Chief Sends Warm Signals to Union On Day No. 1

Monday, November 14, 2011

On his first day on the job, new chief of Metropolitan Transportation Authority Joe Lhota met with members of the agency's board as he set out to streamline the nation's largest transit agency.

Lhota didn't take any special rides on the transit system he now runs, though he does commute to his midtown office by subway from his Brooklyn Heights home. Instead, Lhota observed the MTA board's finance committee meeting on Monday and he got an update on his new agency's balance sheet — one of many hard truths he'll have to reconcile if he is to succeed.

Lhota chose a symbolic gesture of solidarity with transit workers as one of his first acts. He co-authored a letter along with Transport Worker's Union Local 100 President John Samuelson to the District Attorneys of the five boroughs calling for a tougher crack down on crimes against transit workers.

With tough negotiations set to begin Tuesday afternoon to reach a new contract agreement with the Transport Worker's Union, this letter could be an early sign that Lhota is reaching out for compromise early and effectively with the notoriously tough bargaining TWU.

Lhota has already met several times with Samuelson according to TWU spokesman, Jim Gannen. The joint letter was Lhota's idea, he said: “It was interesting that he would reach out in such a fashion, cause that’s such a statement.”

This cooperative outreach is a stark contrast to Lhota's predecessor, Jay Walder who had an icy relationship with the TWU.

The former Cablevision executive and deputy mayor under Rudolph Giuliani takes over as executive director with pressure from all sides for reform.

(Photo: Joe Lhota)

Riders are demanding more service, speedier construction and fewer disruptions as some politicians are looking to cut a key tax provision that funds a substantial portion of the MTA's operating budget. Union contract talks will also be early on his to-do list as the Transit Worker's Union contract expires in January.

The MTA faces a $10 billion budget gap in the authority's capital plan, which pays for everything from new trains to the Second Avenue Subway. At the same time, several Republican state Senators want to repeal a payroll mobility tax on suburban commuters that raises 1/8 of the MTA's operating budget each year.

Lhota is a Republican, which could help in the political battles to come. He still needs to be approved by the Republican-led state Senate before he can officially take the top spots of CEO and Chairman of the MTA. Those hearings are expected to be scheduled soon.

He'll also be preparing for what looks like tough contract talks with the Transport Workers Union. The union is not happy that the MTA wants its members to go three years without pay raises. Both sides are taking up their positions now, in what will be one of Lhota's early tests as a manager.

Read more on Transportation Nation, a site that combines the work of public radio newsrooms and our listeners as the way we build, rebuild and get around the nation changes.

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