New MTA Chairman: New Ideas Or Same Old Politics?

Joe Lhota, the recently-installed chairman of the MTA. Credit: Stephen Nessen/WNYC

THE COMMUTE: Joe Lhota was confirmed last week as the new MTA chairman. So the big question is: Will we see positive changes at the MTA or will it just be business as usual? Judging from his initial comments, my guess is the latter. A chairman needs to think broadly and Lhota appears to be myopic. When the Staten Island Advance told Lhota of desires to extend bus service from the gates of the College of Staten Island to operate within the campus, his immediate response was that, although the need is recognized, the MTA cannot afford it.

The MTA estimated the additional annual cost as between $250,000 and $1,000,000, which is really minimal — $1,000 to $4,000 a day. How is the MTA deriving their costs? Are they including revenue, or just operating costs, and why such a large range? Lhota rejected not only that proposal, but any proposal to increase service. That shows no change in thinking from previous administrations.

The MTA needs a way to prioritize requests from different communities and act on the most pressing ones first. The fact that he also cited a reduction in the payroll tax as a reason for rejection, despite Governor Cuomo’s promise that the amounts lost will be made up by the state, makes it appear that he is just looking for excuses to say no, which has always been the MTA’s modus operandi.

According to former Chairman Jay Walder, when interviewed at his new Hong Kong job, he stated to reporters that, while in New York, he was able “to put the system back on firm financial footing.” So where is the problem? Why is Lhota rejecting all service improvements?


The point is, the MTA continues to plan and makes its decisions shrouded in secrecy and say and do whatever it wants without explanation and with little or no oversight. They reject all ideas to improve or expand service without providing a transparent methodology. Its planning guidelines are still not available on its website. Like Walder, Lhota claims to believe in transparency. Walder did make improvements in this area by making more information publicly available, but did so in a manner that still involves a lot of digging on its website to find what you want, and most of time you have to know what you are looking for; sometimes the information is conflicting. If the MTA wanted to know what we think, there would be a complaint or suggestion button right on the home page.

The MTA needs to be more effective and responsive to its riders instead of the real estate industry. A new chairman needs to be focusing on better serving the passengers. He should be analyzing the corporate culture, for example, how the MTA operates, how bickering between departments and blame shifting often prevents the MTA from being efficient — in other words, how to make the MTA more functional. He did say he wants to streamline the agency, but does he have a plan? Why, after 40 years, is the MTA still not streamlined? As President Obama stated when campaigning four years ago, streamlining must be done with a scalpel not a machete. I hope Lhota recognizes that. You want to cut the fat, not the meat, and that takes a lot of work.

MTA managers earning over $100,000 per year need to earn their salary. It is unconscionable that there are still some high paid managers without any subordinates and others get by just doing the minimum amount of work possible. Those are exceptions, not the rule, and this is where the MTA needs to use their scalpel. Good work needs to be rewarded, instead of promotions being based on how well you agree with your boss, with creative thinking discouraged.

A former co-worker told me a story last year of how he uncovered a problem with a piece of equipment. Rather than being acknowledged and rewarded for discovering the problem he was admonished by his boss, because he was now required to take some action to correct the problem and that meant extra work. The employee now became the “problem,” as the boss saw it. I am sure that was not an isolated incident.

When I was at New York City Transit, employee evaluations were more or less of a joke, with some bosses even too lazy to write them. They either had another employee, who may not have even personally known the employee being evaluated, write the evaluation, or else let the employee write his own evaluation, which the boss then reviewed. The boss first decides who should receive a merit, and structures the evaluations accordingly instead of the other way around. Someone could think he is performing well all year, and then finds himself with a poor evaluation because there are only so many merit increases available. All this is moot now since the budget has not allowed any merits in approximately four years and that does not exactly stimulate high morale.

When Being Economical May Not Make Sense

Also while speaking to the Staten Island Advance, Lhota was asked about light rail for Staten Island’s north shore, a subject I discussed last week. He responded that the MTA is leaning toward Select Bus Service instead because it is more economical. That is not how the subway system was built. The IND was planned for future growth of a city with 12 million inhabitants by building stations with expansive mezzanines because planners did not forecast the growth of the automobile and suburban sprawl. They did not choose the most “economical” plan. What is viewed as most economical today may be viewed as foolhardy 20 or 40 years from now.

Building a busway instead of light rail will mean that a direct light rail trip over the Bayonne Bridge will never be possible. Sometimes being economical is not the correct choice. Why did the original subway flooring last 100 years, while the tile installed during the last 20 years is already falling apart and being maintained with mismatched colors or concrete patching? Was the MTA trying to be economical?

Who Does The MTA Serve?

What Lhota is really saying is that Staten Islanders do not deserve light rail, but at the same time the MTA is thinking of extending the #7 to Secaucus via a new tunnel, because New Jersey does deserve rail. Okay, it may never happen without the proper political support, but why should the needs of people from another state be placed above the needs of the people in New York’s outer boroughs, who have been promised numerous subway extensions for decades?

The answer is that, rather than having a rational planning process, we have decisions made on a purely political basis. We have a #7 being extended to the Javits Center at the same time Governor Cuomo announces plans for a new convention center near JFK with the Javits Center proposed for demolition.

Now this week we learn that Mayor Bloomberg had considered a site near Willets Point for a new convention center. So, why did he insist on extending the #7 to the Javits Center? Was it to make the land more valuable for residential development which will replace the Javits Center so the “one percent” can get richer? Why was there controversy over the payment terms the MTA agreed to when leasing the Hudson Yards, and allegations that Atlantic Yards was sold by the MTA for below market value? Are the mayor and the MTA serving the public or the real estate industry? The fact that most Board members come from the real estate and banking industries rather than being transit experts should provide a clue.

Lhota may not be able to choose the MTA Board, but he will have to decide if he is aligning himself with the riders or big real estate. We will know for sure when the MTA disposes of its current headquarters in Midtown and its former offices at 370 Jay Street in Downtown Brooklyn, which has long remained vacant. The MTA leases 370 Jay from the city. Will the MTA receive a fair price, or will they again be accused of giving away the store? But, what I don’t understand is why the MTA is determining the building value when the city actually owns the property, and who would be the beneficiary of the funds?

The Need For Innovation

The MTA needs to be innovative and one way is to analyze various fare structures such as a time-based fare, discounts for families, or a greatly reduced fare to someone who is willing to layout money for a pass valid for 60 days to a year. Any plan must meet its designed purpose and not be subject to abuse, which was one reason for the discontinuance of the popular one-day Fun Pass. It was intended for tourists, not messenger services.

The MTA tries its best to prevent round trips from being made for a single fare, as if that is the worst crime a passenger could commit. When someone uses their car, they frequently combine several trip purposes at once. Without a monthly pass, that is impossible on the MTA system since you are charged every time you leave the system, no matter how short the trip is.

If as many trips as possible that could begin within a 90-minute or two-hour period were allowed for a single fare, combining trips would be possible and additional discretionary off-peak travel would be encouraged when system capacity usually is available. Instead, under the current system, which allows you only one out-of-system transfer within a two-hour period, you are not even guaranteed that one fare will get you to your destination, more so with recent service cutbacks. Also, sometimes, it is quicker to take a bus to a train to a bus than making the entire trip using two buses. The MTA would encourage more train usage and be able to reduce some bus service, actually saving them money if passengers were not constrained by the number transfers allowed for one fare.

The lesson to be learned is that the MTA needs to start thinking outside of the box. Mr. Lhota merely stated that he would continue to seek biennial fare increases.

The MTA also needs to ask the riders what they want and consider their desires, instead of pretending to be the experts having all the answers. Not only does the MTA not listen to the public, one department usually dismisses ideas from within the agency, but from outside their department, and many departments do not even encourage suggestions from within their own department. There is much talent within the agency that goes untapped because of strict bureaucratic rules, such as not going over your boss’ head. Jay Walder’s biggest accomplishment was to allow outsiders to design applications for mobile devices, abandoning some of the MTA’s paranoia over not trusting anyone outside the agency. Lhota has not mentioned any new ideas thus far.

We need the new chairman to be innovative. Instead, in his interview with the New York Daily News, Lhota responded that he is most bothered by things like flaking paint and improving the MTA’s image. Really, are those the most important things he can think of? It will take a lot more than cosmetic improvements to improve the MTA’s image. He also doesn’t say anything enlightening here either, during an interview he gave to amNewYork.

Flaking paint also bothers me and probably most other subway riders. It makes no sense to skimp on something as cheap as paint. Unless you are painting over an area with water damage, which you are not first correcting, you get the biggest bang for the buck simply by repainting. Stations used to be painted on a regular schedule, approximately every 10 years. Apparently that schedule has been lengthened so much that it doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Lhota is correct in wanting to give painting a higher priority, but subway cosmetic improvements shouldn’t even be a concern of his. That should be the job of NYCT President.

Lhota also told The Daily News that he will be a “rider-chairman” with the power to get any problems he sees fixed. That beats taking a limo to work, but he is fooling himself if he thinks taking the IRT a few stops to work every day will give him an idea of what bus riders face every day in Brooklyn or Staten Island. Gee, if I were chairman, I could also call up the NYCT President everyday to say, “I want that fixed.” And for everything that is fixed for the chairman, something else will remain unfixed.


Walder did not fare well with Albany or the unions. Although he was considered a transit expert, perhaps he did not have the right personality for the job. Lhota is supposed to be more of a down to earth kind of guy and may do better in that area. Let us hope so, but he must also bring original thinking to the table, thinking that involves the big picture. So far, nothing he has said has inspired me. He clearly is a bright guy. Let’s hope he isn’t myopic, blindly believing everything he is told by his underlings, and can be a real leader.

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).