Lhota crows about MTA's quick storm recovery, wants more aid
MTA head Joseph Lhota had a blunt message Wednesday for Albany lawmakers foolish enough to ignore a job well-done by the transportation agency in the days before and after Hurricane Sandy swept through the New York region.
"This is not the MTA that they remember from five, six, seven years ago," Lhota said after a Metropolitan Transportation Authority board meeting in New York City. "This is a completely differently run, managed, efficient agency. This is an organization that knew right from the get-go what it needed to do when the disaster hit."
Lhota said he has every intention of touting the agency's efforts when he seeks support for the perpetually cash-strapped MTA in 2013.
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"I won't lose sight of that when we go to Albany in the next session," Lhota said.
The bold endorsement of his agency's handling of one of the worst storms in the New York region's history comes as Lhota is riding a political high. Sometime critics are lavishing praise on his efforts to get the subways and commuter rails rolling in the wake of the hurricane. Pundits are mentioning the former city budget director as a possible Republican candidate for New York City mayor.
His star is rising even as he pursues fare hikes that will take more cash out of the pockets of riders.
So far, Lhota is deflecting questions about his political future.
"This is an MTA press conference," Lhota said Wednesday. "It's not a political press conference."
Transportation advocates say Lhota is wise to try to translate the agency's swift recovery from the hurricane into a deal for aid in Albany to take some of the burden off the riding public.
Russianoff has focused criticism on an MTA funding system that he said depends too heavily on taxes and, in the long run, leaves riders picking up more and more of the tab.
The revenues that the agency derives from taxes have been unstable in recent years. A 2007 downturn in the real estate market created a $1.2 billion hole in the MTA budget by cutting into a dedicated tax related to mortgages. The MTA is now fighting to keep alive a payroll mobility tax that charges businesses in the MTA region 34 cents for every $100 of payroll.
A Long Island judge declared the payroll mobility tax unconstitutional this summer. If the agency loses a pending appeal of the decision, an additional $1.8 billion in annual revenue would be lost.
Russianoff said Albany needs to come to the MTA's rescue as it tries to close a $450 million hole in its $12.6 billion budget for next year. With that gap in mind, the MTA board is now considering a fare hike that would increase revenue by 7.5 percent for the agency's subway, bus and rail systems. Metro-North riders could see ticket prices jump as much as 9.3 percent, depending on the route they travel.
If passed, it would be the fourth fare hike in five years.
"These increases are greater than the rate of inflation," Russianoff said. "We think these biennial fare hikes have led to the riding public paying more than its fare share."
Albany lawmakers say that no matter how popular Lhota is, there's no getting around the fact that the state is facing its own economic troubles as a sluggish economy cuts into all tax revenues.
"I think Lhota and the managers and the workforce did a great job getting the system back up under adverse conditions," said Assemb. James Brennan (D-Brooklyn), the chairman of the Assembly Corporations, Authorities and Commission Committee, which has oversight of the MTA.
But, Brennan said, the lag in tax revenues will make it difficult for Albany to do anything in 2013.
"Doing anything to step up what we're doing now becomes difficult," Brennan said.
Not everyone is heaping praise on Lhota.
Brennan's predecessor, Richard Brodsky, a four-term Westchester County assemblyman, said the agency could have done a better job of preparing for the worst.
"The response once Sandy hit was well-managed," Brodsky said. "I'm still not sure why the tunnels and other specific facilities were not protected. Does the MTA now have an emergency plan? They didn't in years past."
In the meantime, Lhota continued to highlight his agency's work and the key role it plays in keeping the region's economy running along.
"The team is doing a great job," he said. "I don't deserve the credit."