With newfound public approval, Joe Lhota and the M.T.A. win half a political battle

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Joe Lhota and Dean Skelos take the LIRR. (M.T.A. via Flickr)
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Since he was made M.T.A. chairman in January, Joe Lhota has pursued what he thinks of as a two-step plan to put the M.T.A. on firmer ground.

Step one: make New Yorkers like the M.T.A.

Step two, which is related: make it harder for elected officials to shortchange the mass transit system on which the region's economy relies.

In February, I asked Lhota how he would measure the success of his tenure.

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"I think it will rest on bolstering and enhancing the image of the M.T.A., both with the riders, our customers, as well as elected officials, union leadership, board members and the media," he said. "I think that is instrumental to putting the M.T.A. back on good financial footing. We’ve got to enhance the image of the M.T.A."

Hurricane Sandy, which presented the M.T.A. with one of its greatest crises in history, has actually turned out to be the source of its greatest public-relations boon in recent memory, as New Yorkers came to recognize the magnitude of what the authority accomplished by getting the system back online.

It's fair to say that step one has been accomplished, at least temporarily.

Between November 14 and 18, or more than two weeks after Hurricane Sandy inundated subway tunnels and toppled trees onto train tracks, Quinnipiac University asked 1,165 New York City voters, "How would you rate the M.T.A.'s overall response to Hurricane Sandy, excellent, good, not so good or poor?"

Seventy-five percent responded "good" or "excellent." That included a majority of Republicans, Democrats and independents, and a majority of men, women, whites, African-Americans and Hispanics.

Only 23 percent responded "not so good" or "poor."

Whether this good will will actually have the effect of tempering the hostility of suburban legislators like Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos isn't clear yet. It's not even clear that the good feelings will survive past the next round of bad news the debt-burdened authority is obliged to present to the public.

When I asked Lhota earlier this month whether the newfound public approval would offset the blowback when a new round of fare hikes takes effect in March, he said, without hesitation, "Nope. I don't believe it will."