Joseph Lhota on Friday resigned as chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, ending a 16-month tenure in which he had to manage some of the worst stretches of service for Long Island Rail Road and subway riders in decades.
Lhota’s departure came three days after the re-election of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who nominated him in June 2017 to lead the nation’s largest public transportation system. Vice Chairman Fernando Ferrer was named acting chairman.
"Joe Lhota has dedicated decades of his life to public service, culminating in two tours of duty at the helm of the MTA," Cuomo said in a tweet Friday that was retweeted by Lhota. "He stabilized the subway system, appointed a new leadership structure, and led with a steady hand during some of the agency’s most challenging moments.
"In short, Joe demonstrated time and again why he was the right person for the job. I am deeply grateful for his service to the State of New York."
Cuomo said his office will “prepare to name a permanent replacement” for Lhota, who also served as chief executive officer, in time for the January session of the state Senate. The Senate will have to approve the nominee.
It was Lhota's second tenure heading the MTA. The former Lindenhurst resident initially served as chairman from October 2011 until December 2012, when he resigned to mount an unsuccessful bid for mayor of New York City as a Republican. He previously served as deputy mayor under Rudolph Giuliani.
Although Lhota, 64, was widely praised for leading the MTA’s recovery from the devastation of superstorm Sandy during his first run as chairman, his return to the job was marred by failing service. Both the LIRR and New York City Transit subway system last year recorded their worst annual on-time performance figures in more than two decades, and subway ridership has fallen on Lhota’s watch, despite growing employment in the NYC area.
Lhota led efforts to reverse the service woes, including an $836 million “Subway Action Plan” that included expedited signal repair efforts, stepped-up maintenance and experimental solutions such as removing seats from some trains. In a statement Friday, Lhota said the plan “successfully arrested” the subway system’s decline, and he pointed to a 34.8 percent drop in major subway incidents from September 2017 until September of this year.
Lhota also led the LIRR's mitigation plan throughout last year's "summer of hell," as Cuomo dubbed it, when an Amtrak project to address failing infrastructure at Penn Station forced the railroad to significantly curtail rush-hour service. The plan, which included supplementing trains with shuttle buses and providing fare discounts for riders who avoided Penn, resulted in the railroad making it through the two-month disruption with minimal impacts on riders.
Lhota called the LIRR's improved performance "the new normal," but the railroad soon slipped back into a pattern of frequent delays, cancellations and overcrowding. In April, Lhota replaced LIRR President Patrick Nowakowski with Phillip Eng, who drafted his own multi-point plan to improve railroad service, called LIRR Forward.
MTA board member Mitchell Pally, of Stony Brook, said it would be "unfair to lay the problems of the railroad or the problems of the subway system at any one individual.
"Joe was not at fault. He was not going to be the savior. But he was an integral part in making sure the system got the attention it deserves," Pally added. "You can't find solutions until people know what the issues are, and Joe made sure everybody knew what the issues were."
Despite some early indications that Lhota's efforts were bearing fruit, the MTA’s service challenges were a key campaign issue in Cuomo’s re-election bid, with both Cuomo’s Democratic primary challenger, Cynthia Nixon, and Republican nominee Marc Molinaro targeting the governor for his oversight of the struggling agency.
Cuomo signaled that a leadership shake-up could be on the way, telling the New York Post on Monday, “There’s no doubt that we have to make changes at the MTA and significant organizational changes.”
The MTA gig was a part-time one for Lhota, who kept his position as senior vice president, vice dean and chief of staff for NYU Langone Health even after returning to the MTA, and in February took on another role on the board of directors of the Madison Square Garden Co. He did not take a salary for leading the MTA.
Lhota said when he “volunteered” to return and lead the MTA last year, “It was with the understanding that I would maintain my private-sector positions and delegate day-to-day responsibility to a new team.”
That team includes former Port Authority Director Patrick Foye and ex-subway chief Veronique Hakim, who were both appointed to newly created leadership roles, as well as Ferrer.
On Long Island, Lhota’s resignation was met with both expressions of gratitude from those who worked with him, and calls for his successor to prioritize the needs of commuters from Nassau and Suffolk.
“At a time of unprecedented problems for the LIRR, the next MTA chief must make improving our commuter rail system a top priority,” said state Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), who has led efforts in Albany to improve the LIRR, and now finds himself in the party of power. “The six new LI majority senators will be looking for a leader who demonstrates a commitment to that goal and a plan to get it done. I wish Mr. Lhota well and thank him for his service on behalf of the people of New York.”
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran praised Lhota for leading the MTA through "some of the most difficult challenges" it has faced, including Sandy, and for focusing on improving infrastructure, including through the Third Track project.
"Joe Lhota recognized that safety and customer service were the most important aspects of his job," Curran said.
Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, thanked Lhota and said his effort to bring financial stability to the MTA "is appreciated by all users of the system.
"It is our hope that a new chairman is selected quickly and with transparency to help lead the MTA during these turbulent times," Epstein added.
Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Association, a business group that worked alongside Lhota on several LIRR initiatives, including the recently completed double track project in Suffolk and the planned third rack in Nassau, called Lhota “a total pro at everything he does, including his tenure at the MTA.”
“As a Long Islander, he knew the importance the LIRR plays in our economy and supported Governor Cuomo’s significant investment in it,” Law said.
Kyle Strober, executive director of the Association for a Better Long Island, a planning and advocacy group, said Lhota’s tenure will be remembered for his efforts at bringing a “rational, strategic and measured approach to the task of moving millions of New Yorkers every day.”
“His successor will require the same professional insight and an appreciation that the MTA system doesn’t start and end inside the Five Boroughs,” Strober said. “Long Island is a critical cornerstone of the state’s economy, and without the proper resources to put the Long Island Rail Road on a path to operational efficiency, the region and the state as a whole will suffer.”
Joseph Lhota timeline
- October 2011: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo picks Joseph Lhota, an investment banker and former right-hand man to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, to head the MTA, replacing Jay Walder.
- October 2012: Lhota is lauded for his hands-on approach in leading the restoration and recovery of the MTA following the effects of superstorm Sandy, which devastated subways and the LIRR.
- December 2012: Lhota resigns from the MTA to run for New York City mayor as a Republican. He lost to Bill de Blasio in 2013.
- June 2017: Amid alarming declines in subway service, Lhota returns to the position of chairman and CEO of the MTA, declining to accept a salary for the position.
- July 2017: Lhota unveils his $836 million “Subway Action Plan” to reverse subway problems, including through increased maintenance. A fight between Cuomo and de Blasio over how to fund the plan ensues.
- July 2017: With the LIRR forced to curtail rush-hour service at Penn Station throughout the summer, Lhota leads a mitigation plan that includes extra off-peak trains, supplemental shuttle and ferry service, and fare discount incentives for avoiding Penn Station. The LIRR goes on to post some of its best on-time performance figures of the year in July and August.
- April 2018: Coming off the LIRR’s worst annual on-time performance in 18 years, and, in January, its worst month in 22 years, Lhota replaces railroad President Patrick Nowakowski with Phillip Eng, a career engineer and former MTA and state Department of Transportation executive. Eng soon proposes his LIRR Forward plan to improve railroad service.
- September 2018: Two LIRR megaprojects reach critical milestones under Lhota’s leadership. The $432 million Double Track project between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma is completed, and the $2.6 billion Third Track project between Floral Park and Hicksville breaks ground.
- November 2018: Three days after Cuomo wins re-election to his third term, Lhota announces his resignation.
Correction: Nowakowski was replaced in April 2018 and two megaprojects reached milestones in September 2018. The years were incorrect in an earlier version of this timeline.