MTA chair­man, tasked to fix NYC sub­way prob­lems, re­signs

The Buffalo News - - STATE NEWS - By Emma G. Fitzsim­mons NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK – As New York City con­tin­ues to grap­ple with a sub­way cri­sis, Gov. An­drew Cuomo must now look for a new leader to turn around the sys­tem.

Three days af­ter Cuomo was elected to a third term, he an­nounced that the chair­man of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Trans­porta­tion Au­thor­ity was step­ping down. The chair­man, Joseph Lhota, had re­turned to the agency just last year to help im­prove the sub­way amid ris­ing de­lays and a se­ries of de­rail­ments.

Sub­way of­fi­cials have poured hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars into emer­gency re­pairs, and there are some signs of im­prove­ment. But the sub­way is still reg­u­larly up­ended by dis­rup­tions, and ser­vice is far from re­li­able.

Now the gover­nor is con­fronting a much broader chal­lenge to trans­form the sys­tem and mod­ern­ize its ag­ing in­fra­struc­ture – an enor­mous un­der­tak­ing that could cost more than $40 bil­lion. For Cuomo, who is of­ten men­tioned as a pos­si­ble pres­i­den­tial can­di­date in 2020, the abil­ity to de­liver bet­ter ser­vice will be a ma­jor test of his lead­er­ship.

“The chair­man’s job is im­por­tant, but the per­son who will re­ally de­ter­mine the fu­ture of pub­lic tran­sit was just re-elected on Tues­day,” said John Raskin, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Rid­ers Al­liance, an ad­vo­cacy group. He called on Cuomo to se­cure new fund­ing dur­ing the next leg­isla­tive ses­sion.

Cuomo, a Demo­crat who faced a tor­rent of crit­i­cism over his man­age­ment of the sub­way as he ran for re-elec­tion, named Lhota to run the au­thor­ity last June. Lhota had pre­vi­ously run the agency and won praise for help­ing the sub­way re­bound af­ter it was rav­aged by Hur­ri­cane Sandy.

But dur­ing his sec­ond stint as chair­man, Lhota re­peat­edly faced ques­tions over po­ten­tial con­flicts of in­ter­est and out­side jobs, in­clud­ing in an in­ves­ti­ga­tion this year by The New York Times. Lhota kept his job at NYU Lan­gone Health and joined the board of Madi­son Square Gar­den, which is in­volved in ne­go­ti­a­tions with the MTA about the fu­ture of Penn­syl­va­nia Sta­tion, which sits be­low the arena.

The news of Lhota’s de­par­ture came as a sur­prise be­cause Lhota told re­porters last month that he had not con­sid­ered re­sign­ing. Asked how much longer he would stay at the au­thor­ity, Lhota said: “My term ends on June 10, 2021.”

Cuomo thanked Lhota on Fri­day and said he had been the “right per­son for the job.”

“He sta­bi­lized the sub­way sys­tem, ap­pointed a new lead­er­ship struc­ture to com­pletely over­haul the MTA, and led with a steady hand dur­ing some of the agency’s most chal­leng­ing mo­ments,” Cuomo said in a state­ment.

The au­thor­ity’s vice chair­man, Fer­nando Fer­rer, will serve as act­ing chair­man un­til Cuomo names a re­place­ment. The state Se­nate, which will re­turn to Al­bany in Jan­uary, must con­firm his pick.

Cuomo has called on state law­mak­ers to ap­prove con­ges­tion pric­ing, a pro­posal to toll drivers en­ter­ing the busiest parts of Man­hat­tan, to pay for sub­way re­pairs. Mayor Bill de Bla­sio fa­vors a tax on wealthy New York­ers.

Af­ter Democrats won the state Se­nate this week, the party con­trols both leg­isla­tive branches. They are ex­pected to con­sider sub­way fund­ing dur­ing the next ses­sion. The sub­way’s leader, Andy By­ford, has pro­posed a sweep­ing over­haul that could cost $40 bil­lion over 10 years. Con­ges­tion pric­ing is un­likely to cover the full cost of the plan, and other sources might be needed.

Lhota served as an in­ter­me­di­ary be­tween Cuomo, a hard-charg­ing leader who has taken a hands-on role at the agency, and By­ford, who be­came pres­i­dent of New York City Tran­sit in Jan­uary af­ter work­ing at sys­tems in Toronto and Lon­don. Lhota was also key in press­ing Cuomo to sup­port con­ges­tion pric­ing, even though it car­ried po­lit­i­cal risks, ac­cord­ing to an of­fi­cial at the au­thor­ity, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he was not au­tho­rized to dis­cuss the is­sue pub­licly.

Now By­ford could be on his own, with­out some­one to help him nav­i­gate the prickly task of work­ing with Cuomo. Still, there are other lead­ers, in­clud­ing Veronique Hakim, the au­thor­ity’s man­ag­ing di­rec­tor, and Patrick Foye, its pres­i­dent. Hakim and Foye were in­ter­viewed for the MTA chair job last year be­fore Lhota’s re­turn was an­nounced. Hakim, the for­mer head of New Jersey Tran­sit, would have been the first woman to serve in the chair po­si­tion.

Lhota did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment about why he was leav­ing. In a state­ment, Lhota said that he had re­turned to the agency to halt the de­cline in ser­vice and ar­gued that it had im­proved, point­ing to a drop in train de­lays.

“There is still a long way to go to achieve the per­for­mance that New York­ers de­mand and de­serve,” Lhota said in a state­ment.

Rein­vent Al­bany, a gov­ern­ment watch­dog group, said Lhota’s out­side jobs had hurt the au­thor­ity’s cred­i­bil­ity. His res­ig­na­tion “gives New York state gov­ern­ment an op­por­tu­nity to bring the MTA’s gov­er­nance back un­der the rule of law and to stop ac­cept­ing bla­tant con­flicts of in­ter­est by the head of the MTA or other state au­thor­i­ties,” the group said.

Jon We­in­stein, a spokesman for the MTA, said the group was wrong about the law. “Joe Lhota con­ducted him­self in ac­cor­dance with the high­est eth­i­cal stan­dards,” We­in­stein said.

De Bla­sio, a Demo­crat who has quar­reled with Cuomo over who was re­spon­si­ble for fix­ing the sub­way, said Al­bany must ap­prove new fund­ing.

“There’s clearly a lot of other lead­ers at the MTA who can carry for­ward the work,” de Bla­sio said in a ra­dio in­ter­view Fri­day. “But no one is go­ing to be able to get the work done of fix­ing our sub­ways and buses if we don’t have a per­ma­nent fund­ing source.”

New York Times

Joseph Lhota, chair­man of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Trans­porta­tion Au­thor­ity, has re­signed. He re­turned to the agency last year to help im­prove the sub­ways, plagued by de­lays and de­rail­ments de­spite mil­lions in re­pairs.

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