After sailing through two committee hearings, Joseph Lhota was unanimously confirmed by the New York State Senate to be chairman and CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on Monday.
"I'm very pleased and honored," Lhota said afterwards, speaking to reporters outside the Senate gallery. "I'm looking forward to this opportunity to make a difference."
But it was the state senators themselves who sounded humbled.
"We're honored Joe would come back to public service," said state Senator Malcolm Smith, who seemed to be speaking for most of his colleagues. Lhota was a former New York City deputy mayor in the Giuliani administration, and had been an executive vice president at Madison Square Garden when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo tapped him for the MTA to replace Jay Walder.
Many senators expressed astonishment that the new MTA chair would want the job. The MTA is largely viewed by legislators as "insular, inefficient, and — dare I say it — arrogant," state Senator Andrew Lanza said. Senator Charles Fuschillo, chairman of the senate's transportation committee, summed it up: "We’ve heard this is the most bloated bureaucracy in the country, we’ve heard about the double books, we’ve heard about every problem – we’ve even seen people on the front page of the (New York) Post the other day, playing chess when they should be working."
Lhota, for his part, was even tempered throughout, although he did use his time on the hot seat to to impart a couple of teaching moments. After hearing several legislators trot out the old trope that the agency has two sets of books -- a misperception that is almost a decade old -- he bristled. "The fact of the matter is when you go to our website and drill down, you’ll see an enormous amount of information," he said, adding that the MTA is one of the most transparent agencies in New York State. "There never was two sets of books," he said, "and there never will be two sets of books.”
But the senators knew they had a political macher, not a transportation wonk, in their court, and they seemed to be going through the motions. While Lhota fielded questions on everything from the MTA's finances, to overtime pay, to his stance on tolling the East River bridges, the only legislators who seemed able to muster genuine indignation were the perpetually offended Ruben Diaz, who was unhappy about a subway station in his district, and representatives from Dutchess and Orange Counties -- two of the four so-called "quarter pounder" counties, who share one vote on the MTA board and feel overcharged and underserved by Metro-North.
When senators opined wistfully about the possibility of cutting back on taxpayer support, Lhota sought to nip that in the bud. “I do have to bring up one thing, and I’ll be very honest and very blunt," he said. "There is no way that the MTA can operate without taxpayer money. It was never envisioned to be run nwithout taxpayer dollars. There is not a transportation or commuter rail or transit system in the country that doesn’t work without some other infusion of cash...The entire operation of the MTA cannot be paid for from the riders. It was never envisioned that way when the legislature created the MTA in 1968. I just want to be able to say that.”
During the hearings he talked about his vision for the MTA -- one in which the already pared-down agency further streamlines while improving service. Lhota said he'd be looking closely at the agency's back office operations. “Each one of the operating agencies of the MTA (has) an enormous amount of redundancies," he said. "They all have their own legal staff…. All of the administrative functions are duplicated. I think the time has come for there to be one MTA.”
And he said he was realistic about the challenge: “The bottom line is there’s no consistent standard of excellence across all the MTA. In most cases the service is reliable, stations are clean, and employees provide good customer service. But we’ve all seen dirty subways, we’ve all seen elevators and escalators out of service, buses that crawl at four miles per hour, commuter rail service crippled by bad weather, we’ve heard about projects over budget and behind schedule."
By the end of the afternoon, when the full senate convened to vote, legislators buoyed by the promise of a new era at the MTA rose to their feet to give the new chairman a standing ovation.Lhota told reporters afterwards that he's ridden the subways all his life, and he'll continue to do so. (But with a power that few straphangers can exercise.) "As a rider, I’m also going to be a critic, when I see something wrong on the subways I’m going to make sure it gets fixed," he said. "So the type of chairman I’m going to be for riders? I’m going to be a rider/chairman."