A $743 million plan to link Metro-North Railroad with Penn Station, and other MTA system-expansion projects, would be the first to go if the agency were forced to scale back its proposed capital program, the MTA's chief said Monday.

Speaking at a State Senate joint committee hearing in Albany on the agency's finances, Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman and chief executive Thomas Prendergast said filling a $15 billion funding gap in its proposed $32 billion 2015-2019 capital budget is essential.

But if the MTA is forced to make sacrifices, efforts to expand its system and improve services for customers would be on the chopping block, he said.

"It will first come out of expansion. The Second Avenue Subway [project's] second phase would be the first . . . . Countdown clocks, features and entitlements that maybe the millennials depend on and consider to be entitlements would have to be sacrificed," Prendergast said. "At some point, we have to get an alignment between the money we have to fund the program and the projects that get funded."

Prendergast mentioned the MTA's Penn Station Access proposal, which would bring Metro-North to Penn using existing Amtrak tracks, as another possible cuts victim. The potential impact on East Side Access, which would link the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal by 2023, is "arguable," Prendergast said, because pulling the plug on the $10.2 billion project could mean refunding money to the federal government, which has provided $2.2 billion.

The one area where the MTA won't cut, Prendergast said, is about $22 billion in maintenance projects to keep the MTA's infrastructure assets -- valued at $1 trillion -- in a "state of good repair."

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"If we don't maintain that -- and that's a safety and reliability issue -- then we could have a safety and reliability problem," Prendergast said.

While agreeing the MTA is key to the state's economy, some lawmakers expressed skepticism on the importance of some MTA capital plans and the agency's fiscal priorities.

Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola) noted that the authority already has $34 billion in debt, and it expects to borrow billions more in its proposed five-year plan. That would put more pressure on the MTA to further raise fares to pay its mounting debt service, he said.

"We have to consider the consequences of authorizing borrowing that kind of money on future expenses . . . . How much is it going to cost at a time in which people just can't afford it?" Martins asked.

Transit advocates who spoke at the hearing agreed that more fare-backed borrowing is not the answer. They urged lawmakers to consider new and sustainable revenue sources, including putting new tolls on free East River crossings and in parts of Manhattan, while reducing tolls at other crossings.

The plan, conceived by the nonprofit Move NY Coalition, would eliminate so-called bridge shopping -- motorists going out of their way to avoid tolls -- while also raising $1 billion in new annual revenue for the MTA, proponents said.

Prendergast said MTA officials need to look at the plan, but the agency is concerned it would not raise the revenue organizers say it would.

Sen. Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset), chairman of the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee, who presided over the hearing, said the plan is "worthy of consideration."