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MTA chairman calls for new funding strategy

Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman & CEO Thomas F.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman & CEO Thomas F. Prendergast shown speaking at a breakfast meeting of the Citizens Budget Commission in Manhattan. Prendergast briefed CBC Trustees on the MTA's priorities and fiscal strategy. (Sept. 17, 2013) Credit: Charles Eckert

Significant changes in the MTA's financial strategy are needed to keep the region's public transportation system maintained and moving forward, agency chief executive and chairman Thomas Prendergast said.

"The funding mechanisms we've used for 30 years, like the highway trust fund and other funding sources, are either dried up or dead," Prendergast said Tuesday at a meeting by Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit research and planning group in Manhattan.

"We need to find sustainable funding sources for the operating and capital side of the MTA -- the largest public transportation system in the United States -- that will take us five to seven years out if not longer. If we come up with a solution that just kicks the can down the road another year, we're wasting our time and wasting our effort."

His comments come as the agency that manages the Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North railroad, and city subways and buses, is to start consideration of its next five-year capital plan.

Prendergast, who was confirmed as MTA chairman in June, did not discuss the merits of specific proposals, such as congestion pricing, but said the agency needs the federal government to provide more funding. He will go to the state for aid only when all other viable options have been exhausted, he said.

"We want to fund as much of the capital program through federal and our own means, so we reduced the size that we're going to the state and asking for, because the state has various needs . . . for housing, education, health whatever," Prendergast said, without detailing dollar amounts.

The next five-year capital plan, to be approved by the end of 2014, would cover infrastructure projects from 2015 until 2019 and is expected to cost more than $20 billion. The MTA has not yet identified funding for the plan.

Keeping the MTA financially sound will require continuing the cost-cutting efforts that are expected to save $1.2 billion annually by 2016 and getting union concessions, Prendergast said.

"I'm a major believer that when you put a small group in a room and you explain the problem, reasonable people come to a reasonable conclusion in terms of how we can solve the revenue issues at the MTA," he said. "At the end of the day, we will get the finances we need to run the system."

Citizens Budget Commission consulting research director Charles Brecher said he'd like to see the MTA push for more funding rather than continue "a strategy that sort of says it's up to other people to figure out where the money is going to come from."

"If there's going to be some significant new stream, then at some point there has to be some leadership to advocate for it," Brecher said.

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