Candidate Lhota edges away from transit advocacy
Months before Hurricane Sandy propelled Joe Lhota into the public eye, and then into a run for mayor, the then-M.T.A. chairman expressed hope that the subway system would be an issue in 2013.
“I do believe that people are focused on this,” he said, in March of last year, referring to the M.T.A.'s precarious finances. “It’ll probably be a very big item during the mayoral race next year.”
Now Joe Lhota is the Republican nominee. And he is not talking about the M.T.A.'s finances in any sort of serious way.
Which is not to say that he's not talking about it. He thinks the M.T.A. should drop billions on a subway extension from Republican-heavy Bay Ridge to Republican-heavy Staten Island. He's also in favor of reinstituting the commuter tax, but to fill the city's coffers, not the M.T.A.'s.
The former Giuliani deputy who served for a year at the helm of the transit authority now wants the city to wrest control of the money-making Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority and reduce tolls for Staten Islanders, even though those tolls subsidize the hurricane-ravaged subway system.
He used to think congestion pricing wasn't such a radical idea. Now he finds the very prospect of congestion pricing "draconian," even though the latest version to make the rounds of New York's power circles includes a toll-equalization scheme that would benefit, among other constituencies, drivers on Staten Island.
"There are tons of things that we need to do to reduce traffic, increase mobility—making sure the traffic flows better—before we get to the draconian stage of congestion pricing," he told radio host John Gambling recently.
Gene Russianoff, the staff lawyer for the Straphangers Campaign, called Lhota's transportation platform "very Staten Island-centric."
(It is. In this respect, Lhota is taking a page from the book of his old boss, Rudy Giuliani, whose coalition-building strategy always included a pronounced deference to voting Staten Islanders.)
Russianoff isn't a knee-jerk Lhota critic. He was among the advocates who told me way back when Lhota's name first surfaced in connection with the M.T.A. post that, notwithstanding the transit-hostile positions of his fellow Republicans in the state legislature, Lhota deserved a chance to prove himself. Russianoff also said that the M.T.A.'s post-Hurricane performance under Lhota's bordered on "magic."
Today, he called Lhota's post-M.T.A. transit rhetoric "disappointing."
"I would have hoped he would have learned the system’s needs and stood up for it as opposed to looking at it as a cash cow," he said.
"His tenure was incredibly brief and perhaps if he had been at the agency a little longer it might have shaped his perspective differently," said Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.
Lhota's spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
This morning, at a Citizens Budget Commission breakfast above Grand Central Terminal, Lhota's successor at the M.T.A., Tom Prendergast made the case for transit, sounding much like Lhota did before he became a mayoral candidate.
"Together, we are the lifeblood of the transportation network that supports a $1.4 trillion economy, second only to Tokyo in the world," he said. "And it's not cheap."
It's debt load is huge and keeps on growing.
And, "the cost of running our system keeps rising because of labor issues and as well as funded liabilities that we don't have full control over, like health and welfare...and pension costs," said Prendergast.
The M.T.A. is controlled by Governor Andrew Cuomo, but there are some things that the city could do, like increase its contribution to the M.T.A.
"The city’s contribution has remained flat," since the mid-1990s, according to Vanterpool.
Also, the mayor's appointees to the board could, "exercise their right to suggest projects or funding options or other ways of finding efficiencies."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whom Lhota would like to succeed, didn't increase the city's contributions to the M.T.A., but he did use tax increment-like financing to underwrite the 7-train expansion, and he tried, but failed, to push a congestion pricing scheme through Albany.
Even so, it's not terribly surprising that the Republican candidate for mayor would seek to cater to the Staten Island car owners he clearly sees as his electoral base.
Denise Richardson, the managing director of the General Contractors Association, may disagree with Lhota's proposal to break up the M.T.A.—"All the pieces go together," she said—but said she understands why he's down on congestion pricing.
"If I were running for mayor ... there is no way that I would get up and say to the people in Brooklyn and Queens, 'Guess what, I’m now going to put tolls on the bridges and charge you to come into what has begun to be perceived this glittering world of Manhattan.'"
"It’s certainly campaign season and I’m sure that all of the candidates are responding to what they think the constituents wants to hear," said Vanterpool.