FINANCIAL DISTRICT — Governor Andrew Cuomo tapped former MTA head Joseph Lhota to lead the agency once again, amid mounting concerns from straphangers about deteriorating service and pressure from MTA board members for leaving the office open for five months, Cuomo's announced Wednesday night.
"Joe Lhota is a tested and experienced leader with the proven track record needed to address the enormous challenges facing the nation’s largest mass transportation system," Cuomo said of his pick to shore up the MTA, highlighting how Lhota, deputy mayor to former Mayor Rudy Giuliani had helped the authority recover after Hurricane Sandy.
"This is an incredibly challenging time for the MTA and we will immediately and aggressively tackle the problems the system is facing after decades of disinvestment," Lhota said.
Speaking on the Brian Lehrer show Thursday Mayor Bill de Blasio, who trounced Lhota, a Republican, by 74 points in the 2013 mayor's race, said he didn't think Cuomo's pick was political jab.
“Joe Lhota and I ran against each other but I have a lot of respect for him,” de Blasio said, adding that his four appointees to the MTA board would fight for the authority to shift more funds to repair the ailing subway system, "which is by far the most important thing that the MTA does."
"I want to see them lay out a vision for all of us [on]... how they’re going to fix these underlying problems," he said.
The news comes hours after a tense MTA meeting where board members accused Governor Andrew Cuomo of playing politics in a Tuesday announcement that he was drafting a bill that would allow him to appoint two more board members to the MTA, while ignoring the fact that he'd left the agency without an official CEO for the past five months.
"We need a CEO because we're running off in all different directions," Andrew Saul, Westchester County representative on the MTA, said at a Wednesday board meeting. "This whole thing about changing the board structure and all, this is just a bunch of politics."
Other board members echoed Saul's concern about the agency's lack of CEO and said the governor already controls the MTA's agenda.
"The governor does in all practical ways run the MTA," said Dutchess County representative James Vitiello. "Generally things are passed unanimously by the board."
The governor currently appoints six members of the MTA's board, the mayor chooses four people, and executives of Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Dutchess, Orange, Rockland, and Putnam counties each send a representative according to the board's current structure.
Critics who look for proof that Cuomo controls the MTA look no further than the call from his office Monday for the MTA to reduce fares for Long Island Railroad Riders during Amtrak emergency repair work at Penn Station this summer. On Tuesday, the MTA announced it would give riders a 25 percent discount on fares and free subway transfers.
The decision, made without a vote from the MTA board, irked some city-appointed board members, like head of Department of Transportation Polly Trottenberg, who said if the MTA can give discounts to LIRR riders during a disruption, should they also give subway riders discounts during daily delays or to L train riders during the looming 15-month shutdown.
Other items on Cuomo's agenda have also been fast-tracked, like the rollout of cashless tolling on MTA-run bridges and tunnels and the expansion of the Second Avenue subway, perhaps to the detriment of overall subway service, board member Vitiello said.
"We may have done some of that at the expense of the day to day maintenance," Vitiello said. "We may have been adding new rooms to a house that had a roof falling in and water in the basement."
Mayoral appointee to the board Veronica Vanterpool went even further to say that Cuomo's influence was neutering the MTA's ability to act independently.
"What is not welcome is when we as a board are neutered from making decisions on behalf of the public, as a public benefit corporation. We have not been able to make some key decisions," she said. "We are not seeing the level of control we had before."
Vanterpool pointed specifically to the recently approved expanded capital she voted against that would increase debt in order for big infrastructure projects — like Second Avenue subway expansion and building a link for Penn Station and Metro-North trains — without enough corresponding investment in signal upgrades, she said, one of the main causes of subway delays.
While the MTA allotted $2.1 billion to upgrade signals, the most the authority ever has before, an earlier assessment stated the MTA would need $3 billion to effectively upgrade the system, Vanterpool said.
The tense board discussion comes amid mounting criticism of the MTA for deteriorating subway service with near daily disruptions to which the MTA's has proposed a six-point plan, a genius competition and most recently, a "top-to-bottom" review of how delays are handled.
"We don't need a genius to fix our subway system," Vanterpool said. "We know what the needs are. We just need the attention and the concerted effort and the funding to move these projects forward."