NYC’s Subway Savior

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Joseph Lhota returns as MTA chairman. But can he really do two jobs and fix the ailing transit system?


  • Joseph Lhota, in his first stint as MTA chairman, after Superstorm Sandy in November 2012. Photo: MTA, via Wikimedia Commons

  • Summer in the subway. Photo: Jason Devaun, via flickr

The sum total of Joseph Lhota’s compensation in his return gig as MTA chairman will be $1 a year. But don’t feel too sorry for him. He’ll still pull down a cool $1.35 million from his day job at NYU Langone Medical Center.

Lhota’s base pay in 2015 was $892,423, and he made another $459,431 in bonuses and incentives, the hospital complex reported in tax filings. Clearly, he works hard for the money, clocking an impressive 61 hours per week on average, the filings show.

But a question must be asked: Can a moonlighting chairman, however adroit, rescue, restore and reinvent a crippled subway system in dire need of a turnaround even as he helps to steer a complex academic medical center as its senior vice president, vice dean and chief of staff?

And does Tuesday’s near-tragedy in Harlem — the derailment of a southbound A train, caused by unconscionable human error, the improper placement of a piece of rail on the tracks and the failure to secure it — in any way change that dynamic?

Well, betting against Lhota — except of course when he’s running for mayor — can prove a losing proposition. His crisis-management and disaster-recovery skills are well-tested, his standing among peers and rivals is high, and his flair for pushing back, behind closed doors, at political patrons is pretty near unprecedented.

As ex-Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s deputy mayor, he helped lift the city to its feet after 9/11. When rat infestation plagued Manhattan, he took command of eradication efforts as City Hall’s unofficial “rat czar.” Famously, in his first go-round as Governor Andrew Cuomo’s MTA boss, he engineered the swift restoration of subway service after Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Still, those feats were accomplished when he held one post, not two.

And before basic questions about subway safety surfaced in horrific fashion as two cars swerved off the tracks near the 125th Street station, smoke billowed through the train, there were at least 34 injuries, and 800-plus evacuated passengers clambered through darkened tunnels to safety.

“He doesn’t have to personally take a monkey-wrench to every ancient subway signal in the system,” said tax consultant Alan Green, who lives in Chelsea, as he waited an incomprehensible 15 minutes for a southbound 1 train at Times Square during a recent morning rush. “He just has to provide the leadership.”

His girlfriend, Monica Morley, a waitress in Tribeca, disagreed. “How can you figure out what the hell’s happening to the number 1 train if you have a full-time job somewhere else?”

In their profound disagreement, Green and Morley, each crying out for help, framed the issue perfectly. “Inspire and lead,” he said. “Get your hands a little dirty,” she said.

Lhota’s challenges are immense. One workload is daunting enough. Not to mention two. A modest proposal: Consider a summertime sabbatical as a compromise. That way, Green and Morley and the millions of other straphangers who might similarly clash would be satisfied. Somewhat.

Indeed, it’s a safe bet that if he stepped down from Langone, at least temporarily, its 25,000-plus employees would be eternally grateful. It could help make their commutes a little less hellish.

Is a leave or time off in the cards? Can Lhota fulfill his MTA duties given his commitments to Langone? How many hours does he expect to work as chair? The MTA is famous for not communicating with riders, so it’s perhaps no surprise that MTA Communications Director Beth DeFalco did not communicate or respond to queries from Straus News.

Lhota’s job description can be boiled down to two words — Subway Savior — which certainly sound like a full-time position.

But here’s how it’s been structured. He’ll direct the MTA’s executive management team, not handle day-to-day operations, and as chairman he’ll delegate those duties to a permanent, but yet-to-be-hired CEO, a position that, incredibly, has remained vacant for five months.

“Joe has a full-time job,” Cuomo said in his June 22 press conference after tapping Lhota. “This cannot be his full-time job, so he is going to be a true chairman.”

The governor said Lhota was originally reluctant to re-up, and gave his final, “Yes” just 20 minutes before he was nominated. The sticking point was not managerial, but rather a question of whether he could function in the time available to him, Cuomo said.

So now, the traditional one-person, full-time, chairman-cum-CEO post is being bifurcated, and the next MTA executive officer will handle the nuts-and-bolts — meaning 472 subway stations, 837 miles of track, 1,600-plus mainline switches and 13,000 signals.

Veteran transit steward Veronique Hakim, who’s been running the show since January as interim executive director, is seen as a lead candidate for the CEO slot.

While she’s viewed as capable, consider her language earlier this month as the subway crisis spiraled out of control. Hakim promised a “top-to-bottom review” in which the MTA would “do our own forensics” and “attack this with an all-hands-on-deck-attitude in a number of ways.”

Oh, and she’d also “consult with subject-matter experts internationally to see what other systems are doing.” She should go a little easy on the jargon. Lhota has no great love for bureaucratese.

Meanwhile, there is another dynamic at play as the second Lhota era begins at the MTA. And that is what role if any he’ll assume in the long-poisoned relationship between Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who trounced him by a 50 percent margin when they squared off in the 2013 mayoral race.

In a rare grace note, de Blasio tipped his hat to his former Republican foe, saying he doubted politics entered into Cuomo’s calculations because “few public servants are more capable” of fixing the subways than Lhota.

The MTA chairman may very well take the high road himself. Still, it may be instructive to look at a couple of his recent tweets.

On April 25, @JoeLhota posted that day’s Page One cover in the New York Post with an image of the mayor as a parade float suspended in midair. “FULL OF HOT AIR,” the headline proclaimed. “No plans, no money for DeB’s promises.” Referring to the reporter who wrote the story, Lhota wrote, “Poor Yoav. He’s never going to be able to ask a question ever again.”

Earlier, he tweeted a December 2016 statement he gave to the Wall Street Journal about de Blasio’s reelection prospects at the time.

The mayor, Lhota wrote, was “vulnerable to defeat” at the hands of a GOP nominee who focuses on his “incoherent management skills, his severe lack of honest transparency, and his overall demeanor of indolence and slothfulness.”


Now, maybe those barbed views have mellowed over time as de Blasio’s political stock improved. But the fact that they’re still out there for all the world to see is not happy news for the mayor at a time when his nemesis the governor is proclaiming that the city needs to shell out a lot more cash for MTA capital projects if it hopes to see a service turnaround.

In the middle of that maelstrom stands Joe Lhota. It’s a place where he’s comfortable, a position in which he functions well, a situation that, one imagines, he may actually enjoy.

Yet still the question remains: After putting in 61 hours somewhere else, how much energy will he actually be able to devote to the fight?

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