Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will launch a national search for a new MTA chief after Joseph Lhota's resignation Wednesday to consider what he called "the life-defining decision" of running for New York City mayor.
Lhota's announcement clouded the future of the nation's largest public transportation agency as it battles mounting financial challenges, and just Wednesday approved its fourth fare and toll increase in five years.
He called the decision "bittersweet," but said the agency would do just fine without him.
"In the short time I've been here, what I've found in the management structure is that if you give them the opportunity to make decisions . . . they make the right decision all the time," Lhota said. "They don't need to be told what to do. Their heart is in the right place. It's all about the customers."
He leaves a leaner MTA than the one he inherited from previous chairman Jay Walder, but also one facing new challenges. Among them are recovering $7 billion in damages caused by superstorm Sandy, and uncertainty about the agency's unpopular payroll tax, which was ruled unconstitutional by a State Supreme Court in August.
Lhota, 58, said two goals he wishes he had accomplished were finding funding for the MTA's next five-year capital plan, which will require at least $20 billion for infrastructure investments, and putting the agency on firm enough financial footing to avoid another planned fare hike in 2015.
Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlastos said a national search would begin immediately, but he did not say when the administration wanted a successor in place.
In the interim, board member and former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, who was named MTA vice chairman Wednesday, will be the acting chairman. Ferrer said he was not interested in the job permanently.
Board member Ira Greenberg, who represents the Long Island Rail Road Commuter Council, said he expected Ferrer to be an effective advocate for the agency as it lobbies in Albany and Washington D.C. for further aid.
"He can open doors," Greenberg said of Ferrer. "He knows people, and I think that's important."
The nonprofit Tri-State Transportation Campaign said in a statement that it was concerned about Lhota's timing. "The MTA is on a path to recovery that is now interrupted by the resignation," the group said in a statement. "This is a challenging time to leave the MTA."
Lhota, a Republican, would appear to be an underdog for mayor, but his experience in government and with the MTA would be hard to overlook for Republican primary voters, said Douglas Muzzio, a professor of political science and public affairs at Baruch College and a campaign aide for former Mayor David Dinkins.
Lhota, a former investment banker, was the city budget director and deputy mayor for operations under Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
"Given his background, his potential and his ability to raise money, then clearly you've got a shot," Muzzio said of a potential Lhota candidacy. "This is no fly-by-night trial balloon."
If Lhota does become a Republican candidate for mayor, it would signal that "they expect to clear the field" and avoid a contentious primary, Muzzio said.
"Anyone willing to step up and enter a public debate about the future of this city, and how to address the challenges ahead, and is prepared to defend their record of public service, adds to this election," said Thompson spokesman Tom Butler.
"People will run on their record," Quinn said. "I think it's very important we do everything . . . to make the burden on New Yorker's pocketbooks a little bit easier."
With Chau Lam and