This afternoon, Joe Lhota was confirmed as the new chairman of the MTA. Hearings held earlier today provided a glimpse into the kind of leadership New York transit riders can expect from Lhota. The new chairman defended the MTA from the most strident attacks of anti-transit state senators. When it came to the question of properly funding the transit system, however, Lhota chose to protect the Cuomo administration’s political interests, not transit riders.
The strongest accusations of MTA mismanagement came from Long Island Republican Lee Zeldin, who has also led the fight to repeal the payroll mobility tax. In successive questions, Zeldin raised the issues of overtime abuse, pension abuse and overspending on consultants, among others. Each time, Lhota explained that the worst excesses had already been curbed under previous MTA leadership. Finally, Zeldin closed by wishing “for there to be accountability for the taxpayer dollars so there isn’t a need to use taxpayer dollars at all.”
Lhota didn’t let that stand. “There is no way the MTA can operate without taxpayer dollars,” he interjected. “The entire operation of the MTA cannot be paid for from the riders. It was never envisioned that way.” It’s comforting, at least, to know that the head of the MTA will stand up for the concept of public support for transit.
That doesn’t mean that Lhota at any point articulated the need for additional revenues for transit, however. In an effort to make the case for more transit funding, Senator Dan Squadron, who represents parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, asked Lhota how borrowing roughly $7 billion to pay for the last three years of the MTA’s capital plan would eventually affect riders. Lhota fell back on budget-speak to deny that the borrowing would put still more pressure on the fare. “There is to my knowledge no plan to have fare-backed bonds,” he said. However, both State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and transit advocates have sounded the alarm about depending on borrowing to pay for needed repairs and construction.
Similarly, when Bronx Senator Rubén Díaz, Sr. pressed Lhota about whether he’d support tolls on the East River Bridges, Cuomo’s nominee did not mention the MTA’s struggling finances. Said Lhota, “If it’s what the city wants to do and it’s approved and it’s what the state legislature wants to do, I’m the guy who will get it done efficiently and effectively.” Opining on bridge tolls might be outside the MTA chairman’s job description, but Lhota could easily have noted that the transit system needs the money.
Besides Squadron, the other senator to make an appeal for additional transit funding was Brooklyn’s Eric Adams. “If we want to get New Yorkers out of cars, then we need a first-class transportation system,” he said. “Albany has not done enough.” Adams also urged Lhota to add better bike parking at subway stations, saying that he sometimes bikes to the train himself.