Advocates, MTA chief debate on $40M in transit funds

MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast, pictured here at the MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast, pictured here at the National Museum of the American Indian in October, said the MTA's needs are being met. Photo Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

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MTA chief Tom Prendergast yesterday said he hasn't tried to pressure Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office into restoring $40 million in transit funds in the budget, money that advocates say could stave off fare hikes or add service.

"I haven't, because our needs are being met," Prendergast told reporters after an MTA board meeting.

Cuomo's budget proposes moving $40 million from a $1.5 billion fund of transit-dedicated revenue -- a maneuver that state Assembly and Senate lawmakers are seeking to reverse as they negotiate the state budget, due April 1. The Cuomo budget uses the money to pay down debt on MTA projects that the state had been covering.

Prendergast said he understood the importance of dedicated funding to transit, noting that lawmakers tried to pass a "lockbox" to protect the money.

"At the end of the day, people want to make sure money that is allocated for something is spent," he said. "I am sensitive to the issue that people raised, but I'm also sensitive to the issue that the needs of the MTA are being met. And so far, they're being met."

The MTA's budget factors in 4% fare hikes in 2015 and 2017, as well as three years of revenue-neutral labor contracts. In recent years, state aid to MTA operations has increased at a time when spending for other agencies has been relatively flat, according to the state Budget Division. This year's budget proposes a 2% increase to $4.35 billion; the 2013 budget, meanwhile, was a 10.5% increase in funding.

During the MTA board's public comment period, several transit advocates slammed the budget move as a raid on transit funds.

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"It translates directly into service and the ongoing increase in fares," said John Raskin of the Riders Alliance.

Gene Russianoff, of the Straphangers Campaign, said the move gives Cuomo "40 million bucks to play with and the riding public does not get the $40 million."

MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said the agency has been able to add new bus and train service and cut down its proposed fare hike.

"In each of the last two years, the MTA has received more in state aid from the budget than we had planned," Lisberg said. "So I think that's a pretty strong record of the MTA getting what it needs."

Meanwhile, unions in the midst of contentious contract negotiations are taking up the cause to ensure the funding stays put. The MTA has been offering changes on work rules and benefits to cover raises.

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"It is concerning to labor that the MTA feels as though it does not need $40 million right now, while they have reported consistently that they are unable to fund employee raises . . . without raising fares," said Anthony Simon, the leader of the coalition representing most Long Island Rail Road workers.

Transport Workers Union Local 100 President John Samuelsen, in Albany on Tuesday, called the budget sweep "inappropriate, unfair" to riders and asked to have the money earmarked to restore the 2010 service cuts.

"You can't say you don't have the money," he said, "and then defund the system to the tune of 40 million bucks."

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