The head of the MTA Wednesday backed away from a suggestion by his finance chief that the agency could resort to huge fare hikes to fill a $15 billion capital budget gap, saying such a move would be "unconscionable."

At a meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board in Manhattan, agency chairman and chief executive Thomas Prendergast again implored government and business leaders to get behind the proposed $32 billion proposal, which would fund maintenance, expansion and improvement projects through 2019.

But, he said, even if they don't step up to help fund the $15 billion deficit, transit riders need not worry about having to pay for it themselves.

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"We have never, ever closed the capital program on the backs of the fare payers," Prendergast said. "That's unconscionable. That's not our desire. And that's not what we're going to do."

On Monday, MTA Chief Financial Officer Robert Foran said that, if left with no other options to fund the plan, the MTA board could consider issuing bonds that would be backed by new fare revenue.

"We'd be talking something that would be an incremental 15 percent in fares and tolls," Foran said Monday.

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On Tuesday, Prendergast released a statement saying that Foran was merely giving "a hypothetical answer to a hypothetical question."

Prendergast said it was critical that New York City and state government leaders address the capital plan by June, when the city is expected to adopt a new budget and the state ends its legislative session.

Although he said the MTA is still open to discussing the size of the capital budget, it needs to fund more than just system maintenance, which costs about $22 billion.

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"We're seeing ridership at record levels," said Prendergast, adding that the plan must expand and enhance transit to meet the needs of its customers. "We can't just sit here and wait. We need to take action now."

A spokesman for the Senate Majority Republicans did not respond to a request for comment.

The MTA board Wednesday also approved a $35,000 agreement with nonprofit group Operation Lifesaver to work together to promote railroad grade crossing safety.

The MTA reached out to the group after the Feb. 3 Metro-North Railroad grade crossing accident in which a train struck a car on the tracks in Valhalla in Westchester County, killing seven people.