Joe Lhota, wartime M.T.A. chairman
"This is freakin' boring.”
Joe Lhota, the chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which every day carries 8.5 million people on its subways, buses, and commuter railroads, sat slumped behind a long table in an almost entirely empty banquet hall on the second floor of the Melville Marriott in Long Island.
Lhota—a former deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani whose name has been floated in the New York Post as a possible Republican mayoral contender in 2013, though that seems about as realistic as the Ray Kelly scenario that hovered and then crashed in the Post earlier this year—was ostensibly officiating a required public hearing on the impending fare and toll hikes.
But perhaps because the fare hikes are all-but-officially a done deal, or because the night was rainy, or because Hurricane Sandy has made the issue less of a priority, there were more M.T.A. personnel at the 5 p.m. event than there were civilians.
"We have five people here,” he said. “We’ll have a drink in 20 minutes.”
By the time the first speaker began, Lhota was already rubbing the bridge of his nose.
The first speaker said the planned fare and toll hikes were “too large.”
The second speaker called the tolls “excessive, unjust and unreasonable.”
Another speaker said the hearing was just “for show” (which I imagine Lhota might say, too, if the head of the M.T.A. were at liberty to say such a thing).
The show lasted three hours. Given the paucity of speakers (more than five, in the end, but fewer than a dozen), no more than half of it was taken up by official business.
Lhota started flicking through pictures he’d saved on his iPad.
There was an image of his two labrador retrievers, an unflattering photo of Sheldon Silver, and a screenshot of the email he got when the fictional “Newsroom” character Will McAvoy followed him on Twitter.
“Have you figured out how to take pictures of what’s on your screen?” he asked me, referring to screenshots. “It’s great.”
He sped past pictures of his daughter, now in college, a depiction of Mayor Michael Bloomberg as a Canadian mountie and snapshots of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel after Hurricane Sandy filled it with water.
“I tweeted this a week before [the storm],” he said, pointing to a cartoon on his iPad of a witch on a broomstick muttering, "October hurricanes are wicked!!" “Who knew how bad it was gonna be?”
THE HURRICANE WAS, OF COURSE, EXTREMELY BAD.
It sent waters surging into M.T.A. tunnels, flooding subway stations from trackbed to ceiling and destroying the bridge that carries passengers to the Rockaways, all of which caused an estimated $5 billion in damage.
Under Lhota, the M.T.A. got the system up and running far faster than anyone had expected, boosting his and the authority's popularity (and giving rise to that mayoral speculation).
But that’s not to say the system is back to normal. It isn't, and Lhota doesn't know when it will be.
Sitting in the back of his chauffeured S.U.V. on his way to the meeting in Melville, Lhota had told me that the thing that worries him most about the storm's aftermath is the long-term repercussions for equipment that was submerged in saltwater.
“I'm very concerned about whether or not we’re going to start seeing electronic equipment that would normally last ... 10 years only last five years, said Lhota.
Concern notwithstanding, Lhota has managed to convey a sense of resolute calm in his public interactions since the storm.
This is partly because he believes in the resiliency of the transit system, and that things will, and must, get back to normal.
And it's partly because he himself is a calmer person than he once was: a result, Lhota said, of his personal experience seven years ago, when he was diagnosed with cancer and looked “into the abyss.”
"Believe me, you might find this surprising, I’m not as outspoken as I used to be," said Lhota, who recently urged an elderly M.T.A. board member in a public meeting to "be a man."
As evidence of his mellowing, Lhota recalled a 2000 Times article headlined “The Outspoken Stand-In for Mayor Giuliani.”
“I’ll find the article,” he said. “You’ll laugh hysterically. What did I do with my iPad?”
Lhota rummaged through his black leather briefcase, retrieved his device and using his two index fingers, typed the reporter's last name, "Bumiller,” and “Lhota” into the search engine.
He handed me the article to read.
“Did you get to the part yet where I gave her the finger?” he asked. “My mother gave me a tongue-lashing when she read that.”
The article referenced an “obscene gesture.”
I asked if that’s what he meant.
By way of an answer, he lifted his middle finger.
THE M.T.A.'s SUCCESS IN RESTORING THE REGION'S SUBWAYS, TUNNELS, bridges, buses and commuter rail after the storm has done wonders for both its reputation and for its chairman's.
In a recent Quinnipiac University poll, 75 percent of New Yorkers rated the M.T.A.'s performance after Hurricane Sandy "excellent" or "good."
Even some of the suburban legislators who regularly delight in making the M.T.A. their whipping boy have had nice things to say about it recently, according to Lhota.
“Senator Skelos for example ... actually said to me the Long Island Railroad coming back was the only thing that was back to normal on the island," said Lhota, referring to Senate majority leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican.
Skelos, like nearly all suburban legislators in the M.T.A.'s 12-county service area, has sought to roll back a transit-dedicated payroll tax that was enacted to prop up the authority's teetering finances. He has had some success in that regard.
Asked whether, during their post-hurricane rendezvous, Lhota had broached the topic of replacing the payroll mobility tax, which sends more than $1 billion a year to the M.T.A., with something more politically palatable, he said, "No, I did not."
THE IDEA THAT ANYONE AT ALL IS TALKING ABOUT even a pretend Lhota candidacy now is funny, given that he was brought into his current job, as much as anything, to impose discipline. He was certainly not put there to become popular.
Lhota's predecessor as M.T.A. chair, a forward-thinking wonk named Jay Walder, was in fact well-regarded, at least among transit advocates and the sector of the public that had any idea who he was.
Instead of bringing in another specialist, Andrew Cuomo, who has never been particularly enthusiastic about transit, went for Lhota, a fiscal disciplinarian and skilled political in-fighter.
A budget director and first deputy mayor under Giuliani, and then a top aide to James Dolan, Lhota came to the job without any specialized experience running a transportation system. (He had previously served as a member of the M.T.A. board.)
"My job is to provide a stability for how the agency gets funded. I deal with the politics, the governmental relations side of it," he said, adding, "I love it. I love it.”
Lhota, notwithstanding the fact that he spends most of his professional life now lobbying for more public money for the authority he heads, describes himself as a small-government libertarian. A Catholic-raised son of a cop from the Bronx, via Lindenhurst, Lhota says he personally believes same-sex marriage ought to be recognized by the federal government and that marijuana "absolutely" should be legal.
I asked him about the latest bit of grist for the mayoral-candidate narrative: Mark Lebow, the husband of first deputy mayor Patti Harris, introduced Lhota at an M.T.A. meeting as “mayor-elect." (This, even though Lhota got himself into hot water this month when he seemed to call Harris' boss, Bloomberg, an "idiot.")
“I think he likes to be provocative,” said Lhota, of Lebow.
Lhota also said, “None of the Republican chairmen have attempted to reach out to me."
I asked him, then, where the thought the chatter was originating.
Republicans are “desirous of getting a qualified candidate to run” next year, Lhota said.
“It’s possible that they’re making a statement about everyone else who’s running at the same time."