I’ll admit, when I heard the news last night that MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota would resign and run for mayor, my first thought was “really?” Not that Mr. Lhota isn’t qualified. As deputy mayor for operations under Rudy Giuliani, Lhota probably carried out some less-than-ideal policies while gaining some good experience in city government. Since his stint in the Giuliani administration, Lhota has served on the board of the Madison Square Garden Company and, most recently, as chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. This is an impressive resume, to be sure, and one that should serve him well in a mostly-weak Republican field. (For those who are less-initiated in the seedy world of NYC politics, the current Republicans publicly considering runs for mayor include publisher Tom Allon [ex-Democrat], former Borough President and Obama’s inaugural Director of the Office of Urban Affairs Adolfo Carrion [ex-Democrat], State Senator Malcolm Smith [still a Democrat], and Godwin’s Law enthusiast-cum-supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis [hey, a real Republican!].)
Politically, this move makes a lot of sense for Lhota. With some help from his friends in the business world, as well as any politician disenchanted with the Democratic field for mayor, Lhota should have a good shot at the Republican nomination. True, Carrion might be able to win over the five-or-so Hispanic Republicans, and Allon will give Lhota a run for his money (literally) among rich white Manhattanites, but Lhota comes in with institutional support, experience, and money. It is clear that Lhota’s decision was a politically canny one; why, then, was my first reaction one of disbelief and disappointment? Follow me below the B/D/F/M—I mean, the squiggly orange lines…
Let's take a step back from electoral politics for a minute. Before announcing his run for mayor, Lhota was in the news for a completely different, and unwelcome, reason: the latest MTA fare hike. Just this week the MTA board (again, led by Lhota) voted to raise the base fare from $2.25 to $2.50 and the price of a monthly unlimited MetroCard from $104 to $112. This may seem like chump change, but remember that the base fare was just $2 a few years ago and the cost of an unlimited was $89 as recently as 2010. In a city as mass transit-reliant as New York, these price hikes hurt struggling citizens who depend on cheap transportation to commute to and from work every day. I'm not saying that the fare hike was unreasonable--transit is expensive, and in an age when the MTA gets screwed over by Albany at seemingly every turn, hiking the prices is to be expected.
Running the MTA is not a low-level or easy job. Among the LIRR, MetroNorth, and the bus and subway within the city, the MTA carries over 11 million passengers per day. Additionally, over 800,000 vehicles per day use its toll bridges. The MTA is an incredibly important organization and it depends on calm, steady leadership on an everyday basis. For the past year that job has been ably served by Mr. Lhota. That's just it though--he's only been in office for a year (he was first appointed in November 2011). The past chairman, Jay Walder, left after just two years for the cushy job of running Hong Kong's transit authority. Before that, Elliot Sander left the MTA to serve as CEO of an architectural firm and, oh yeah, as a board member for the National Express Group, a UK-based transportation company. Lhota's departure after just 13 months on the job is even more shocking than the sudden departures of the last two chairmen, and it is no less disappointing.
Presumably Lhota decided to increase the prices for more reasons than "this will hurt the poor." Whatever his plans are--more funding for the Second Avenue Subway, East Side Access, or 7 Train extension? more frequency on key subways? recovery from Hurricane Sandy?--it would be nice, as a New Yorker, to know that this plan was going somewhere. Lhota's departure is a stunning failure of leadership coming from a man whom we all thought was better than that. Lhota was supposed to be the MTA Chairman who finally turned things around for the struggling organization. Instead he has decided to dine and dash, leaving New Yorkers to pick up the check. His run for mayor is no sure thing. He might lose the primary, and even if he secures the GOP nomination he will still face an uphill general election battle against a Democrat, be it Speaker Christine Quinn, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, or former Comptroller Bill Thompson.
Lhota's decision to run for mayor is a shockingly bad decision, both policy-wise and electorally. The Live Digest mentioned a recent poll that had Lhota down 60-9 to a generic Democrat. I have no fear that, as the election progresses, Lhota's name recognition will increase and he will be locked in a tough battle for Gracie Mansion. Right now, I would wager that he has less than a 20% chance of being New York's next mayor. There is just too much uncertainty in New York City politics to take anything for granted. I hope, and expect, that Lhota will get pilloried by the press (after they end their honeymoon with NYC's latest moderate Republican savior) for leaving the MTA when they needed him the most. Lhota's departure will leave the MTA leaderless (at least, until Cuomo appoints another one of his business buddies, but I digress...) in the midst of the recovery from Hurricane Sandy and the latest fare hike, and what will Lhota himself have to show for it? Probably nothing. This is a sad day for New York, and one that will probably come back to bite Mr. Lhota. While his decision may look like a good one politically right now, that may soon blow up in his face. After all, who has been his most public cheerleader? That's right: none other than Rudy Giuliani.