Our sister site Transportation Nation followed up on reports that the search to replace Jay Walder as head of the MTA may be soon over. Former Giuliani aide Joseph Lhota is said to be leading the pack as a possible candidate.
If Lhota was picked, Governor Cuomo would be replacing a transit professional with a manger with experience handling government. He'd also be putting a former Republican operative into the driver seat of the often vilified agency Republicans from around the state are working to strip of revenue via the payroll tax they say is crippling local economies and fundamentally unfair.
The precipice on which the NY MTA teeters consists of several difficulties: a 2012-2015 capital construction plan with a $10 billion dollar shortfall; a looming contract negotiation with Transport Workers Union Local 100 that, by all signs, will be acrimonious; a threat from a group of state legislators to cut the dedicated revenue stream that is the regional payroll mobility tax, which last year contributed $1.3 billion to authority coffers. That’s about an eighth of the authority’s operating budget.
Sources differed on Lhota’s ability to rise to those challenges. The NY MTA needs someone “who can handle the union relationships, the crisis of money, and Lhota will get it faster than most people,” said one. Another thought the Republican Lhota could help the Democrat Cuomo beat back a Republican-led push in the state legislature to eliminate the payroll mobility tax.
But a third believed Lhota was the front-runner precisely because he won’t speak up too loudly for the needs of mass transit: “He’s going to be the person who makes the cuts without making any demands on the state budget. He may even then turn around and say to the city, ‘It’s all your fault.’ He’s going to protect Andrew Cuomo from the hard choices.”
The replacement process, and the potential Lhota pick, is illuminating a tendency in the Cuomo administration. The search committee members signed confidentiality agreements--not unusual by themselves. What was interesting was how tight-lipped everyone actually was. The fact this information was leaked even led some people close to the process to wonder if it wasn't a Cuomo-controlled event meant to test public reaction to Lhota's candidacy.
If things are as they are shaping up to be, and Lhota is the front runner, the third quoted paragraph is the most interesting. In, at best, creating a hostile environment for Walder, the Cuomo administration made a decision to alienate a transit lifer liked by both elected officials and transit advocates.
A Lhota appointment look based on political calculations more than anything else. The Cuomo people are signaling an interest in reducing their exposure to potential political problems, not in solving the agency’s unsustainable financial crisis. This of course was created over the years by politicians worried about their political exposure.
If you add in the push-out of Chris Ward at the Port Authority, it's Cuomo's top priority is having his people in key, highly-public posts who will put the governor’s political interests first.
But who does that serve, if political decisions are put ahead of qualification or competency, other than Cuomo's public image and political leverage? It's a question that will continue to be asked if Lhota ends up at the top of the MTA pile.