Joe Lhota has been a top aide to Jim Dolan and Rudy Giuliani. So working for Andrew Cuomo should be a day at the beach. Probably not, though, because the governor is hiring Lhota to be chairman of the MTA. Running the nation’s largest transit agency is a major headache even in the best of times and Lhota will be stepping in as the MTA faces a $10 billion construction shortfall and a contentious union contract negotiation. And it may need to raise subway fares to $3 by 2014. No wonder Lhota’s short-lived predecessor, Jay Walder, abruptly split for Hong Kong.
Lhota is not a bus-and-train geek, but in other ways he may be the perfect person for the job. Smart and tough, Lhota knows the intricacies of big-money public and private budgets from his years as Giuliani’s budget director and as a Madison Square Garden executive. Probably even more important to Cuomo are Lhota’s ferocious loyalty — he was still ripping Giuliani’s critics years after leaving City Hall — and his political experience. That Lhota is a conservative Republican gives him the credibility to deal with state Republican legislators who want to slash the payroll tax, a key source of MTA revenue; it also gives Cuomo another claim to centrist bipartisanship. Lhota is no pushover, and he will have an opinion on the best way to run the MTA, but Cuomo makes the big decisions in this administration; Lhota is the kind of unwavering lieutenant who can be counted on to carry them out.
Choosing an MTA chief was Cuomo’s second assertion of his role in city life this week; he also named Patrick Foye to run the Port Authority and announced a renewed focus on renovating Moynihan Station. Albany budget battles dominated Cuomo’s first months in office; now he’s taking on greater control of the state’s infrastructure, which could increase the governor’s already-tense dealings with Mike Bloomberg. Lhota stayed on decent terms with Bloombergworld while working for one of the mayor’s greatest antagonists, Dolan. Making the trains run on time may prove easy compared with pulling that trick off again.