The Visionary and the Bean Counter: Can Joe Lhota Get the M.T.A. on the Right Track?

Slow down. (Getty)

When Jay Walder resigned from the M.T.A. earlier this year, the transportation community was mortified. Here was their messiah leaving for Hong Kong, his work barely begun. Transit wonks could hardly fathom who could take over for Mr. Walder, continuing his formidable task of transforming the agency in ways both subtle—cutting $4 billion in waste and efficiencies—and not—underground cellphones, Oyster cards, Bus Rapid Transit.

They were looking in the wrong place.

Today, Governor Andrew Cuomo made official the weeks-old rumors that Joe Lhota, Rudy Giuliani’s deputy mayor for operations, would take over the unruly agency. The other front runner was Neil Peterson—a serial businessman who founded a Zipcar precursor, led three transit agencies on the West Coast and was an accomplished ballroom dancer. He might have actually outshone Mr. Walder, even.

Mr. Lhota does not dance, though he may know a thing or two about pop music, from his stint at Madison Square Garden, where he has worked for Jimmy Dolan since leaving City Hall.

He is, by all accounts, a great bandleader though, at least when it comes to making the books sing. “Joe is as good as it gets,” Richard Schwartz, a senior adviser to Mayor Giuliani, told The Observer. “He knows everything about the operations and the communities and the politics of the city.” City officials and activists who have worked with Mr. Lhota in the past describe him as whip smart and very accessible, perhaps more so than anyone in the at-times combative Giuliani administration. But above all, they speak of his budgetary expertise, his wizardry with numbers.

In other words, he is no transit wonk, though he did oversee the city’s Department of Transportation as part of his portfolio. Regardless, that may be exactly what the M.T.A. needs right now. The Cuomo administration, which has been preaching austerity all year, seems to think so. “There was a debate whether it should be a transit guy or a numbers guy,” one member of the committee that helped select the new director said. “The numbers guys won out.”

That said, this person, who was in the transit camp, agreed that given the difficult fiscal climate, and continued animosity in Albany toward the M.T.A., Mr. Lhota could be exactly what the agency needs. “He certainly seems to have the management and finance skills to navigate the political channels and get M.T.A. the resources it needs,” the committee member said. “Or at least make sure there aren’t any more cuts.”

The M.T.A. is already running on fumes. There have been fare hikes the past three years, and still the city had to face one of the gravest service cuts in a generation. The capital budget has a $10 billion hole in it, large enough to drive one of those massive tunnel boring machines through, and in one of his last acts as M.T.A. boss, his final “thanks for nothing,” Jay Walder decided to try and close that hole with almost $7 billion in new borrowing. He knew he was not getting any help from Albany, either insider the Legislature or the executive mansion.

Joe Lhota might be able to help with that. He has the full backing of the governor, and he knows the byways of the state’s ruling class. And much as we may want the city’s subways to shine again—to compete with places like London and Hong Kong and Washington in terms of transit—it seems clear now is not the time for that. Steady as she goes is the motto.

“Look at all the projects we already have, do we really need more?” one Giuliani insider wondered. “Those are all things that have to be managed at this points. I think it’s a far greater priority to make sure those projects are tightly controlled, on time and on budget, and that the rest of the system is made more efficient and cost-friendly.”

After all, what good is a new subway line if the old ones are crumbling?

mchaban [at] | @MC_NYC The Visionary and the Bean Counter: Can Joe Lhota Get the M.T.A. on the Right Track?