New MTA chief Joe Lhota talks about the agency's future
A day after being confirmed by the state Senate as the new head of the MTA, Joe Lhota, 57, sat down with amNewYork and outlined his goals for the money-starved transit agency, and shared his favorite subway line and his interest in British politics.
amNewYork: Now that you're officially in charge of the MTA, what immediate and long-term changes do you plan to make?
Joe Lhota: The most important thing that I can do here is to change the public’s attitude about the MTA — making the place safer, making the place cleaner, providing more information… My overall goal is to leave the system in better shape than I received it… There will be a lot of specifics that happen along the way, a lot of things that will happen different along the way. I know what some of them are, but I don’t want to talk about them because I may jinx them… We’ll come out with an agenda in the next couple of months with very, very specifics.
amNY: Are there any philosophical differences you see between your vision of the MTA and that of your predecessor, Jay Walder?
JL: I don’t know Jay well enough to know what’s going to be different. But I do think from an operational point of view, his heart, his mind was in the right direction. He had to make a lot of tough choices… He was dealt a very difficult hand with the financial situation. He had to deal with cuts and he had to deal with service reductions and he did it. He did it as efficiently, as effectively as he could, and I appreciate that.
amNY: When he started his new job in Hong Kong last week, Walder said the MTA’s infrastructure is in “terrible condition.” Is he right?
JL: Jay was asked a question to juxtaposition between the modern, brand-new system that they have in Hong Kong versus the 100-year-old system that we have here. Jay’s comments, I’ll just say simply, are unfortunate. I don’t view the system the way it was portrayed in the newspapers. But it’s an old system, and it’s a 24-hour-a-day system. To be able to compare it to a brand-new, modern system, it’s like comparing an iPad to a black-and-white television. It’s a whole different structure… We have to deal with what we have, and I think we do very efficiently and very effectively and we’ve got to do it even better.
amNY: You join the MTA during a pretty stressful time: you need to find millions in savings, find a way to fund the capital budget, and strike a deal with the Transport Workers Union (whose contract expires at the end of the week). Are you nervous?
JL: You can’t get nervous. You have to be able to compartmentalize, put each one of the issues in its own little place and deal with it… The last thing you need to do is to worry about it. That doesn’t say that I don’t get up in the morning after what I would hope would be a good night’s sleep thinking about a work issue. It happens. It happens every day.
amNY: With your experience handling budgets (Lhota served as a city budget director and deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani), what are some ways you’re looking to save money?
JL: I do think that the issue here is one of management. A good budget director is a good manager… I like to think I’m a good manager and a good leader with a financial bend, but at the same time, you have to be a little more human.
amNY: What are some things straphangers may not know about you?
JL: I grew up in the Bronx, and then my family moved to Long Island. [I’m the] son of a cop, grandson of a firefighter and my other grandfather was a taxi driver. I’ve been riding the subway system my whole life. When I lived up in Pelham Bay, I would take the No. 6 line — my grandma lived down here — to Manhattan to go to a show or go to a movie. I live in Brooklyn Heights now and I’ve lived there for 20-someodd years, taking the subway almost every single day.
amNY: What’s your route?
JL: The 2 and the 3 are my favorite train lines. Now that I work kind of near Grand Central, I mix it up. Sometimes I take the 2 or the 3 and then the shuttle over, or I take the 4 or the 5 and come right into Grand Central… I haven’t found the best way — both are good.
amNY: Do you have any hobbies?
JL: I need to focus on getting a new hobby… I read things that are unrelated to work and I find that very calming. My wife and I like to go to the movies — I’m not sure that’s a hobby, it’s a New York thing to do — but it’s something to do. I love to stay current with what’s going on in general politics both here and — believe it or not — in England. I may be the only person in the world that watches the prime minister’s question and answers. It’s every Wednesday morning at 7 a.m. on C-SPAN.
amNY: Why England?
JL: I think the Brits are a forerunner to us on a lot of issues, they really are. It’s just interesting to watch them deal with many of the problems we’re dealing with.
amNY: How do you keep up to date?
JL: I have an iPad. I use it all the time — it’s a great product. I have a Twitter account, but I will never tweet. I watch some things, certain reporters that re-tweet and I watch what’s going on.
amNY: You said you’re a movie buff. What was the last movie you saw?
JL: There haven’t been too many good movies out lately. The last movie I saw was “Mission: Impossible IV.” It was OK — it was “Mission: Impossible.” I really want to see the new Margaret Thatcher movie, “The Iron Lady.”