A few quick thoughts on the news that MTA Chair Joe Lhota is going to leave the agency at the end of week to clear the way for a mayoral run…
There are basically two angles to consider. One is that the MTA is about to lose its chief executive, yet again, after a brief but effective tenure. When Lhota replaced Jay Walder at the end of 2010, the major concern was that the region was losing someone who rose through the ranks at the world’s most complex transit agencies and gaining a former deputy mayor with no transit jobs on his resume. Despite his lack of transit expertise, Lhota turned out to be a good person to have in charge. He kept making headway on Walder initiatives like the expansion of real-time transit data, and his handling of the post-Sandy recovery process produced a spectacularly rare outcome: a public relations victory for the MTA. If he’s using the MTA chair position as a springboard to politics, Lhota must have been doing something right. It won’t be easy for Andrew Cuomo to fill the void.
The other angle, which I think is more significant, is that a sitting MTA chair entering the mayoral race is bound to elevate transit as an electoral issue. We can speculate all day long about what a hypothetical Lhota mayoralty would mean for transit, but just by running, he’ll guarantee that trains and buses get more attention than in a typical NYC mayoral election, which tends to reduce transportation to a second- or third-tier issue.
We’ll see whether New York City voters get a substantive discussion of major transit issues — the MTA’s punishing debt burden, the opportunities to significantly improve the city’s surface transit network — or just an amplified version of the usual MTA blame game, with Lhota serving as the other candidates’ punching bag. But with Lhota in the mix, transit can’t be ignored in the 2013 campaign.