NEW YORK — Joe Lhota, the Republican mayoral candidate whose leadership of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been credited with helping to stave off calamity to the city's subway system during Hurricane Sandy last year, is often considered a seasoned manager of large, untidy bureaucracies. It is a well-deserved reputation. He held positions in the Rudy Giuliani administration, including as budget director and deputy mayor of operations. He was MTA chief from 2011 to 2012. During an interview with the Gotham Gazette at his campaign office near Grand Central Terminal, he responded to questions on various public policy issues, from the budget to the Community Safety Act (which he called the "Community Un-Safety Act").
GG: The City Council and mayor recently approved a new city budget, so that seems like a good place to start. Do you think the so-called “budget dance” is a distraction from actual debate about budget priorities?
LHOTA: See, I look at the dance as starting in January. When the public talks about the dance, they are really just talking about what they think is what happens in regards to the executive budget in connection with member items, which is just a minor, minor piece, about $300 to $400 million dollars. And quite honestly, that budget dance starts at the beginning. The city charter, the lowercase “c” constitution of the city, lays out the process for the dance.
GG: So you’re not critical of the budget dance?
LHOTA: I’m not critical of the budget process at all.
GG: What do you think of the way that discretionary funding is distributed to City Council members for their district?
LHOTA: Some members, some people running for mayor have actually called for the end of Council member items. I'm not at that level yet. I think it … needs to be open and transparent.
GG: The city’s open data law is a national model. What would you do to make sure that the city continues to be at the forefront of the open government movement, and how would you get agencies to comply with the law?
LHOTA: Originally the MTA was saying we will develop the app and I said no. Let us put the data out there, let other people develop the app and, if you go into the store where you can buy the apps on your smartphone, there are about 12 or 13 different app providers that will provide you that same level of data because we have let it out there. The MTA is not in the business of creating apps. The MTA is in the business of moving people from point A to point B and knowing exactly where the trains are, let us tell the world where the trains are and let them decide how we do it. That is this same thing with city government we are going to do.
What amazes me is that there still is a long, long way to go for the city to be technologically at the cutting edge because we are not near the cutting edge; there are other municipalities around the county who are much more advanced than we are. I encourage you to look at a magazine called Government Technology, which I used to get when I was deputy mayor.
GG: What would you do as mayor to get agency heads to promote technology innovation?
LHOTA: That’s an even broader question than the specific one you asked. How would I go about making sure I hire commissioners who are technologically savvy? It is going to be a component … I will no doubt have different task forces for dealing with the health commissioner and this commissioner, and that commissioner. But they need to be more than just an expert in that area. They also need to show some technological savvy. It is going to be a key component in the selection of any commissioner.
The one thing I will tell you about technology, technology brings out in government the phrase I hate the most which is, "We have never done it that way before." You hear it a lot and you would hear it a lot and that's exactly what you don't want. Of course, you have never done it that way before. That is why it is called technology.
GG: Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Department of Education received considerable financial and professional support from the private sector. What role should the private sector — either business people or companies — play in financing, shaping or steering the DOE and its policies?
LHOTA: It is interesting, I talked a lot about charter schools and some people automatically assume charter schools are subsidized. There is one charter school program, Uncommon Schools, it is called, where the private sector contributions started and then after that there are no more contributions. All they use to fund that operation is the money they receive from the city of New York. I think it is a very, very good model.
I don't want to do anything to discourage the private sector from philanthropic efforts, we need to continue that.
GG: How much control should the next mayor have over the city’s subways and buses? Should the city wrestle control over mass transit from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority?
LHOTA: The transportation world in this city balkanized. It truly is. You have major roads in New York City that are controlled by the sate. For example, the FDR drive, is not a city road. It is a state road and the state repairs and upkeeps it. You have the MTA, which has the subways and buses and the bridges and tunnels.
What I have been calling for, just as an aside, is that the bridges and tunnels need to be given back to the mayor. They were taken away from the mayor in 1968 by the Legislature at the request of Gov. Rockefeller. The Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority still exists; it is a subsidiary of the MTA. I have called as a candidate to have the mayor take over the TBTA again because that way they can control the tolls over there because tolls are going up for the purposes of subsidizing things unrelated to the bridges and tunnels.
I think what I would like to do, that existed pre-Mike Bloomberg is the Mayor’s Office of Transportation. It was a coordinating body between all of them. In fact Janette Sadik-Khan was the head of the Mayor’s Office of Transportation during the Dinkins administration.
Their role was to make sure the city was heard at every level within every one of those agencies, so much so that the mayor’s representatives on the MTA board would meet with the Mayor’s Office of Transportation before committee meetings, before board meetings, and understand what the committee and what the city wanted from the MTA, and so it was very important.
There really needs to be an overall effort to try to get everyone to work together. That is one of the reasons I want the bridges and tunnels — by the way, the bridges and tunnels only connect the five boroughs. They don't go to Nassau County, they don't go to Westchester County. They only connect one borough to another borough. In one case in the Rockaways, [a bridge] connects Queens to Queens.
So the people who want to go from one side of the borough to the other side of the borough have to pay a toll. It is amazing how inequitable that seems to be. I don't know any other place in the country where it costs you money to go in the same county from one side to the other side. The mayor and City Council should control all of the bridges and tunnels in the five boroughs. Then there will be the beginning of less balkanization going on because then you will be able to control the ability to get from one borough to another borough and have a cohesive or at least a coherent transportation policy and strategy, maybe strategy then policy.
GG: The bridges and tunnels, but not the subways.
LHOTA: Quite honestly the subsidy that is provided by the state to mass transit is voluminous and we can't lose that subsidy. The subsidy right now on the transit ride — about 50 percent of the cost for your subway ride, and I'm going to be off by a couple percentages, but it's about 50-50. Fifty percent of the cost of the subway ride comes from the fare and the other 50 percent comes from the state in the form of subsidies.
But those subsidies are different things, they can take the form of every time you get in a cab, 50 cents goes to the MTA. Every time you have a new mortgage, you have something called the mortgage recording tax, that goes to the MTA. Again, even the subsidies’ streams are balkanized.
Maybe I know too much because I'm wonkish on this issue. But you can't just say the mayor should take over the MTA without realizing the fiscal implications. It needs to be a much more comprehensive answer than we are just going to take it over.
GG: Sam Schwartz, the well known transportation policy expert, has come out with a new plan for how tolls can be priced, which some describe as “congestion pricing” but he does not. What do you think of the plan?
LHOTA: No question it's creative, no question it's innovative, and it would require all of these disparate governmental functions to sit at a table together and agree, that I'm going to charge less, you're going to charge more, you're going to pay me back, it's a swapping of money. That's because these revenue streams that are created by the Port Authority, by the MTA, by the city, by the state, anyone else is involved in this area, they already have dedicated uses to where this is going, they're going to say why.
GG: Is that where your plan for bringing back the Mayor’s Office of Transportation would come into play?
LHOTA: The Mayor’s Office of Transportation would never be that powerful. It will at least be able to try to have a cohesive, coherent policy coming from the mayors office, coming from the direction of the city. Look, Sam's idea is innovative and creative, but at the same point I think it's extremely controversial and how it will ever pass I just don't know. By the way, the other people sitting at the table are the New York State Assembly and the New York State Senate. They have a very big role in this and, quite honestly, their role through the Public Authority's Control board has what I call Security Council rules, anybody who says no and the entire issue falls. It's not a majority rule situation … which is what you have the Security Council at the United Nations. All you need is one member of the Security Council to say “nyet,” like they used to say during the Cold War, and it fails. It doesn't go forward. Those are the same rules you have in Albany.
GG: What do you think of the two public safety bills that were recently approved by the City Council under what is being called the Community Safety Act? One law would establish an independent inspector general to monitor the New York Police Department. The other gives individuals the right to sue for racial profiling by the NYPD.
LHOTA: I'm against the inspector general. I also think the Community Safety Act is misnamed, I think it's the “Community Un-safety Act.” I think it's going to do everything to make it more difficult for the police to do their job, handcuffing them in many ways. And I believe it makes us unsafe.
I encourage everybody, I really mean this, and this gets overly wonky. There is a court case called Terry v. Ohio, 1988, written by Earl Warren, the chief justice at the time, which gives permission for cops, police officers to stop anyone if they believe that person is doing anything suspicious. This was passed by the Supreme Court eight to one. It has been the guidelines for the police department here and around the country.
GG: Do you think the mayor's tactic of using his wealth to influence the passage of the bill is a good strategy?
LHOTA: Let me turn it on its head and ask you a theoretical question. Do you think it's a good idea for the governor to go out and raise money for something called a Committee to Save New York, to lobby the state Legislature on his proposals?
This has been going on since the beginning of time in democracy. The distinction is that Mike Bloomberg may be the only one funding it … I have no idea what it is like to be a billionaire, to be able to do these types of things. This concept of elected officials going outside asking to raise money to affect the legislative process is nothing new; it's just a continuation of what has been going on in this country for quite sometime.
Did you see the most recent Abraham Lincoln movie?
What is amazing is that I saw it in a theatre in lower Manhattan and, after it was all over, there were these two little ladies right in front of me and they were probably 70s, 80s and a major portion of the film was the fact that Lincoln asked his Secretary of State, that at the time was leading the charge for the 13th Amendment, to go out and hire lobbyists to lobby the Congress to be able to get the bill passed and these two little old ladies said, "Do you believe it, they had lobbyists back then?” And it was just like, “Lady, there have been lobbyists since the beginning.” There were lobbyists in Rome at the Roman Senate; there were people that did that.
So that the idea Mike Bloomberg is doing something new and different, he's not. Is it fair? We're a country where you're allowed to express your opinion. It's a First Amendment right and you can do it with money.
— Intern Daniel Stein-Sayles contributed research assistance.