Lhota on ‘exploring’ a run, and leaving the M.T.A. mid-crisis

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Lhota on Wednesday. (Dana Rubinstein)
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"I will be exploring a potential candidacy for the mayor of New York," said M.T.A. chairman Joe Lhota on Wednesday, delivering a statement to reporters following a transportation authority board meeting in midtown.

Lhota will send a letter this afternoon to the man who appointed him, Governor Andrew Cuomo, announcing that December 31 will be his last day in charge of the regional mass transit system that serves 8.5 million passengers daily.

"However, I will have no further comment on this subject until I make my final decision in early January of 2013," continued Lhota.

If only.

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The M.T.A. may have voted to raise subway fares today, but Lhota's decision to consider a run for mayor, and what that means for the fiscally challenged M.T.A., was by far the bigger news.

And so the first question from reporters...

"Chairman, I'm wondering if you could express your views on gay marriage, gun control, legalizing marijuana?," asked Pete Donahue, as the room exploded in laughter.

"Dana, give him the recording from the car," joked Lhota, referring to a recent ride-along interview in which he told me he supports gay marriage and "absolutely" favors the legalization of marijuana.

In a more sober tone, a reporter asked Lhota if he thinks the agency can handle yet another leadership transition. Lhota, after all, replaced Jay Walder, who similarly failed to serve out his full term, prompting, in his wake, an exodus from the authority's upper management.

Lhota said he's sure the authority can function without him. 

"What I have found in the management structure that's here, if you give them the opportunity to make decisions, if you give them the opportunity to expand their capacity to make decisions, they make the right decision all the time," said Lhota. "They don't need to be directed and told what to do."

Once Lhota leaves, former Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer will replace him on a temporary basis.

"I believe in the interim period of time that Freddy Ferrer is the acting chairman, he understands that," said Lhota. "It was his style when he was borough president."

Similarly, Lhota said that the authority's labor-relations staff could handle negotiations with the Transport Workers Union without him.

The authority is in a delicate spot, in budget terms.

Not only is it dependent on the union agreeing to concessions that it has thus far shown no inclination to make, but Hurricane Sandy caused billions of dollars worth of damage systemwide. And the M.T.A. had financial troubles well before the storm hit. 

Lhota's departure may well complicate the M.T.A.'s ongoing lobbying efforts in Washington to secure hurricane relief, not to mention the authority's ability to secure more stable revenue streams, so that the M.T.A. won't have to raise fares every two years in perpetuity.

A reporter asked Lhota if he wasn't he turning his back on all of the challenges now facing the M.T.A., at a time of particular vulnerability.

"I never expected this to happen," said Lhota. "I never expected this opportunity to arise, but I will use every part of this opportunity to continue to support the M.T.A. in everything that I do for the rest of my life."

"On the operating side, we still are projecting having a fare increase in 2015," said Lhota. "I would have liked to have gotten to a point, and I hope whoever succeeds me will get the agency to a point, where it's not necessary. Two, on the capital side, we have a capital plan that'll begin in 2015 that has no funding at this time. And it concerns me that I'll be leaving in the middle of what should be a campaign on behalf of the entire M.T.A. system. Those are things that I actually worried about last week, I worried about six months ago, and I will worry about later."