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Advocates decry MTA's loss of $30M in state budget

Diverting $30 million in tax revenue from the MTA in the state budget was a breach of trust and the money could have gone toward restoring service cuts, including on the Long Island Rail Road, public transportation advocates said Tuesday.

The $138 billion state budget that passed Monday also did not include the significant jumps in aid sought by bus operators in Suffolk and Nassau counties.

In January, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposed taking $40 million from a dedicated Metropolitan Transportation Authority fund to reduce MTA capital debt the state originally vowed to pay off with general fund dollars.

In budget negotiations, the State Legislature reduced the amount to $30 million, but that was of little solace to transit advocates, who said the money could have been used to restore MTA service cuts made four years ago, when the agency was facing a $1-billion budget shortfall.

"Frankly, it's a breach of trust," said William Henderson, executive director of the MTA's Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, which includes the LIRR Commuter Council, a watchdog group that advocates for riders.

Cuomo's office noted Tuesday that, even without the $30 million, the state increased funding for the MTA by 2 percent, and has stepped up aid to the agency every year since 2011.

"The Executive Budget supports transit by using $30 million to pay down some of the debt accrued for MTA projects while also increasing operating aid to the MTA by another $85 million to over $4.3 billion," said state budget division spokesman Morris Peters.

MTA Board member Mitchell Pally said that while the state has met the agency's financial needs this year, the MTA would have made bigger plans if it could have counted on an additional $30 million.

Pally said the money could have sped up and increased future service additions, including bringing back weekend service on the LIRR's West Hempstead branch. "We could have done things differently if we knew that money was going to be there," he said.

Meanwhile, bus rider watchdogs in Nassau and Suffolk were also disappointed that the budget did not increase aid for other transit agencies above the 2.1 percent promised by Cuomo in January.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone last month asked the state for an additional $10 million in aid to help boost Sunday bus service, and create parity with other county bus systems, which receive more state funding while contributing fewer county tax subsidies.

And Nassau's bus system, the Nassau-Inter County Express, or NICE, said last week that without increased state or county funding, it might consider service cuts to help fill a $3.3 million budget gap.

Scott Reif, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), said the state "is providing record levels of assistance" for Long Island's bus systems. Now that the "state budget window is closed," Ryan Lynch, associate director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said it's time for Nassau to "step up" and increase aid for NICE.

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