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MTA will finish year with surplus, officials say

Crews work to remove derailed freight cars and

Crews work to remove derailed freight cars and repair damaged right-of-way along Metro-North Railroad's Hudson Line in the Bronx after derailment. (July 19, 2013) Credit: MTA / Joseph P. Chan

The MTA is on pace to close out 2013 with its biggest budget surplus in at least five years, but several threats to the agency's fiscal future remain, officials said Wednesday.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority released its midyear update of the 2013 operating budget and gave a glimpse of the agency's finances over the next four years.

MTA chief financial officer Robert Foran said that, thanks to several revenue streams doing better than expected, the agency expects to end the year with a $141 million surplus -- nearly three times the amount that the MTA projected in February. That balance will be carried into next year's budget.

New York City real estate transaction taxes, state transit aid and tolls are all coming in higher than expected. And some costs, including employee pensions, are lower than predicted, Foran said.

With its finances far improved from four years ago when it was facing a nearly $2 billion deficit, the MTA on Monday announced plans for widespread service restorations and additions, including on the Long Island Rail Road.

Some transit riders and advocates Wednesday called for further service improvements, but MTA chairman Tom Prendergast said the authority had to be careful not to put out more service than it can afford.

"I do not want to be part of a process . . . that will restore service only to have to come back and ask you to cut service the next year," Prendergast said. "That's not responsible."

Foran said the MTA will also put $80 million of its increased revenue toward funding the LIRR's $1.2 billion pension costs -- the MTA's most underfunded pension system. That will reduce LIRR costs by $6 million each year, he said.

Despite all the good news, MTA officials warned that their financial situation is still fragile and relies on the agency continuing to cut costs, the continuation of biannual fare and toll hikes -- including in 2015 and 2017 -- and unions agreeing to a three-year freeze in labor costs.

"To the extent that any of these things aren't realized, the deficits will increase and will have to be addressed by some other source," Foran said.

Anthony Simon, general chairman of the United Transportation Union -- the LIRR's largest labor organization -- noted that workers have been without a contract since 2009, "and they do the real work."

"We will continue to negotiate in good faith as we have from the start and its time for the MTA to return the respect to our members," Simon said.

Even if all those goals are achieved, the MTA is still predicting a $100 million deficit by 2017.

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