The MTA Board on Wednesday approved a four-year financial plan that includes $249 million to hire 500 police officers, including to help address safety issues at Long Island Rail Road stations.
The financial plan includes a $17 billion operating budget for 2020. But it was the plan to bolster the MTA Police Department's ranks by 65% that drew the most debate among public speakers and board members, including three New York City representatives, who voted against the budget during the meeting in Manhattan.
"We believe that's going to help us provide a safe and secure environment for our customers and our employees, and that's our focus," said MTA chairman Patrick Foye, who expects the additional cops to make a difference on Long Island. "I not only hear from commuters, I am a daily commuter on the Long Island Rail Road. I think it's appropriate that some of these new officers patrol Long Island Rail and Metro-North stations, platforms and trains. I think that's a good idea."
Metropolitan Transportation Authority leaders and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo have pushed for hiring more cops as a way to address growing fare evasion, homelessness, and assaults on MTA employees working in subways and buses, which are currently patrolled by NYPD officers.
But opponents have questioned the expenditure, which comes as crime has fallen throughout the MTA system, and as the agency faces deficits that could reach nearly a half-billion dollars by 2023.
Some board members and activists in attendance — including some who were removed by police for loudly disrupting the meeting at the MTA's Manhattan headquarters — argued that the overpolicing of the system would unfairly target low-income and minority subway riders.
But supporters of the plan said the MTA's 760-member police force has been understaffed for too long, as evidenced by the department's overtime rate — the highest of any MTA agency. MTA officials have said the additional cops also will go a long way toward addressing growing concerns about commuters' experience at some LIRR stations, including overaggressive panhandling and loitering.
"It's out of the ordinary that people would object to safety," said MTA Board member David Mack, who represents Nassau County and has been a vocal supporter of police. "It's a mind-boggling thing that you wouldn't want to be safe."
Board member Veronica Vanterpool — a representative of NYC — said she objected to the plan, in part, because of its lack of details, including how the new officers would be distributed throughout the transportation network.
"It would be great to know what the deployment of resources is. What is our strategy here?" said Vanterpool, who advocated for considering non-police options for addressing issues of homelessness and fare evasion. "This is not a binary discussion. This is not, 'We are against officers because we are against safety in the system.' "
Also Wednesday, the MTA released the findings of an independent forensic audit of its proposed $51.5 billion capital program, which aims to fund major infrastructure investments, including at the LIRR, through 2024.
The audit was ordered by the State Legislature as a condition of its passage of a congestion pricing plan that is expected to generate $1 billion of new toll revenue for the capital program. Crowe LLP, the public accounting firm that was paid about $900,000 to perform the audit, found that the MTA's "capital planning process is consistent with industry leading standards," according to Bert Nuehring, a firm partner.
The audit made some recommendations on how the MTA could improve its infrastructure budgeting. Nuehring noted that some of the MTA's cost estimates for projects "do seem a little higher" than those of other transit agencies used for comparison in the report. MTA Chief Development Officer Janno Lieber called the audit's findings "validation" of the agency's priorities, including for improved handicapped accessibility throughout the MTA system.
"The bottom line is that we have a capital program that makes sense," Lieber said. "Now it's time to build."