Lhota: Don't Hate on the MTA

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Joseph Lhota, on his second official day as chair and CEO of the MTA (photo by Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

When Jay Walder took office in 2009, he made no bones about his priorities: installing countdown clocks, Oyster cards, and bettering bus service. But the new CEO, Joseph Lhota, confirmed Monday by the New York Senate, seems to have a less lofty goal: getting the public not to hate on the nation’s largest transit agency.

Yes, he wants to improve efficiencies; yes he wants more and better communication with customers; yes, he’ll strenuously defend the expenditure of taxpayer funds on the transit agency. “There’s not a transit agency in the country that burdens their riders with solely paying for the system,” Lhota says, echoing remarks he made at yesterday’s hearing.

But at the end of the day, Lhota says, “I’m finding a lot of people don’t have a whole lot of respect for the MTA."

He sat down Tuesday with WNYC’s Jim O’Grady to talk about the MTA’s image problem, why there won’t be more bus service anytime soon, and why he’s encouraged by a move by the Transport Workers Union to extend the contract deadline beyond Sunday night.

[TWU President] “John Samuelsen and I have tried to do everything to create a relationship with each other.  We’re open and honest with each other,” Lhota said.

A transcript of the interview follows.

O’Grady: Under your predecessor, Jay Walder, a set of his main accomplishments were innovations like the countdown clock and real time information for riders. What innovations do you have in mind?

Lhota: I think you’re going to see a continuation of more information, more communications with all of our customers, our riders.  The ability to tell them how soon a train is coming or how soon a bus is coming is a very important thing. I’m going to spend an enormous amount of time on increasing the efficiency of the MTA and also changing what most people think of the MTA.

I’m finding a lot of people don’t have a whole lot of respect for the MTA. It's an organization that allows eight and a half million people to travel to and from work every day and to travel home every day and to school, to dates on Saturday night. I want people to understand how important the MTA is to their lives. At the end of the day I’d like them to feel good -- or feel better -- about the MTA.

O’Grady: Do you have any ideas in the technology realm?

Lhota: In the technology world there are an enormous amount of innovations.  We started a contest for apps, so we can provide data to people who develop apps for iPhones and smartphones. The best thing to do for technology is not for a government agency determine what to do, but to harness the power of young people who seem to have a much better understanding, a much better grasp of technology.

O’Grady: What ideas do you have for funding the MTA?

Lhota: Some of the senators yesterday said they wanted to find a way to end any taxpayer funding for the MTA. And I reminded them in 1968 when the legislature back then with then Governor Rockefeller --they created the MTA with the intent that the burden of the transit system would not be solely on the rider, that it would be more broad-based, that there would be tax revenues.  The concept of totally eliminating tax funding for the MTA would be inconsistent with how it was created. There’s not a transit agency in the country that burdens their riders with solely paying for the system.

O’Grady: Where’s that money going to come from?

Lhota: I don’t know where the money is going to come from but I’ll work with the state legislature and I’ll work with leaders across the state. The question of revenues right now not isolated to the MTA -- all government agencies are under pressure. The current condition of our economy is really providing the lack of revenues.

I’ll work with Albany, with City Hall and the federal government, on new and better fund sources.

O’Grady: Jay Walder said in Hong Kong that New York’s transit system was underfunded and under developed.

Lhota: I heard Jay’s comments. They were taken out of context. Jay was comparing the brand new system in Hong Kong to a hundred plus year-old system here in New York. It’s really tough to compare something that is brand new with something that has being operated for over 100 years. The comparison is not apt.

O’Grady: There was a close vote on [the MTA] board about restoring bus service. People are always clamoring for connecting underserved areas like, say, Red Hook to Williamsburg as one example.  Would you consider restoring or adding bus service anywhere in New York?

Lhota : When we get the finances under control. Our budget is currently very fragile [and] we have a lot of risky assumptions in our budget. We have to constantly evaluate where should we have our routes, where should we change service, where should we increase it, where should we decrease it. We need to do that based on the demographics of what’s going on, but until we get our financial house in order we will not be seeing restorations.

O’Grady: Getting your financial house in order -- where does the consolidation play into that? Are there savings to be had from consolidation?

Lhota: There are some savings to be had -- and dealing with what people unfortunately pejoratively call the bloat -- with the MTA.  Where do we have too many lawyers, where do we have too many accountants,  where do we have too many paper pushers? That will provide some help but not substantially all, we need to find ways to do what we do with the resources we have.

O’Grady: Just give me your general impression of how its going with the Transport Workers Union.

Lhota:  Negotiations are ongoing, they’ve been constructive, they’ve been very helpful. John Samuelsen and I have tried to do everything to create a relationship with each other. We’re open and honest with each other. We tell him things that we like.  I tell him things I don’t like and there are no repercussions from it. The negotiations are ongoing but will remain behind closed doors.

O’Grady: Are you going to hit the deadline?

Lhota: We’re going to do everything we can to hit the deadline. The executive committee of the TWU has already extended the deadline by saying if they don’t have a contract by that date they’re willing to extend it out. That was a very encouraging sign by the leaders of the TWU, so the pressure we normally have on us is not there. That being said, we’re going to do everything we can to have it resolved by midnight next Sunday night.