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As NY MTA Chair, Lhota Exhorted: Be A Man!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012 - 07:52 PM

Jim O'Grady and Joe Lhota (Photo: Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

(New York, NY - WNYC) Several months ago, NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority board member Charles Moerdler was droning on with objections to a change in a meeting schedule. The issue was minor and the room was warm -- one could be forgiven for mentally wandering ... or dozing off.

Moerdler wrapped up; Joe Lhota pounced.

"Chuck, I wish you would reconsider that position since your flawed thinking and the erroneous things you said are scurrilous."

Chins lifted off chests. What was this? Lhota continued.

"The lying to this board has got to stop!"

This was real. Moerdler looked mortified. But he rallied once Lhota had wrapped up his tongue-lashing. Moerdler replied by accusing Lhota of character assassination--remember, this began as a squabble about a meeting schedule--before concluding somewhat oddly, "I will not challenge you."

Lhota said, "Oh, I wish you would. Be a man!"

This was Lhota the politician, the guy who, as long-time deputy mayor to Rudy Giuliani, had an up-close view of power wielded as a blunt instrument. This was Lhota the alpha male making a calculated display not just to smack down Moerdler but to let others know that if you cross Joe Lhota, you could pay a price.

Lhota, who'll resign on Dec. 31, seems to have real feeling for New York City's transit system--he spoke movingly of damage done to it during Sandy. But he's no Jay Walder, his technocratic predecessor. Where Walder was bland, Lhota has been blunt.

Exhibit B would be Lhota's reaction to a court ruling in August that the payroll mobility tax, which accounts for almost 15 percent of the NY MTA budget, violates the state constitution. In response, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a measured statement that took issue with the decision. Lhota, for his part, convened a full-blown press conference at Grand Central Terminal, where he attacked the judge who made the ruling, and the suburban legislators who brought the lawsuit that prompted it, as "flawed as well as erroneous."

Lhota came with a chart to show that the MTA subsidizes the average subway ride by a little more than a dollar while subsidizing the average Long Island Railroad rider by more than 7 dollars. Take that.

Even the way he launched his political career was aggressive. It has to be the first time a public figure to announce his intention to run for mayor only moments after presiding over a fare and toll hike. Asked by a reporter how that combination of events reflected on him, Lhota joked, "It's a profile in courage."

And what of his 357-day legacy as NY MTA chairman? Transportation advocates give him credit for several successes: restoring service quickly after Sandy, cutting overhead at the MTA by hundreds of millions of dollars, and bringing back $30 million in subway and bus service that had been cut in 2010.

Those same advocacy groups expressed grave concerns over the MTA budget, which depends on regular 7.5 percent fare and toll hikes--the next one is coming in 2015--and a capital plan funded by massive borrowing. In a statement, the groups sounded a warning:

"Earlier this year, the MTA borrowed $7 billion to help pay for the last two years โ€“ 2013 and 2014 โ€“ of its current construction program. The agency already spends $2 billion a year out of its $13 billion annual operating budget to pay off its existing $32 billion in debt. Debt service is projected to go up to $3 billion in future years."

Storm Sandy only made the situation worse. The federal government and insurance should pay for most of the estimated $4.75 billion in damage to the NY MTA's transportation system. But $950 million of infrastructure damage may need to be covered by the authority. Advocates point out, "that will come to $66 million a year in additional debt payments for decades to come."

The other unknown that Lhota leaves is the fate of the contract he's been negotiating with Transport Workers Union Local 100 since January. Lhota has said the biggest challenge to the NY MTA's budget are the fixed and rising costs of workers' pensions and healthcare. That's why he made it a priority to get off to a good start with union chief John Samuelsen, who, in the past, made no secret of despising Jay Walder. But now Lhota is leaving before a contract has been reached.

And that speaks to the issue of stability. Counting interim executives, the NY MTA has had six leaders in six years. A Twitter wag pointed out that Lhota today followed his post-Sandy analysis--"We still have a long way to go to get back to normal"--by essentially saying "See you!"

He's leaving to "explore" a run for mayor of New York. Perhaps his successor will stay longer than a year.

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