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OPINION: With MTA, get used to paying more for less

Philip Mark Plotch teaches transportation planning at Hunter College's Graduate School of Urban Planning.

Our train and bus services are getting worse and more expensive. This week, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority eliminated 11 Long Island Bus lines and significantly scaled back eight others. In May, the MTA eliminated trains on every Long Island Rail Road branch, and in September it will cut even more service.

The MTA can solve its worsening budget shortfall, but it's going to take a sustained and difficult effort. The authority needs to reduce employee benefits, get rid of obsolete work rules, trim unnecessary services, delay construction projects and raise more revenue.

Our region's public transportation system has faced financial challenges before. In 1949, the private company that owned the LIRR went bankrupt, and a lack of investment led to daily train breakdowns. The next year, 31 people died in a Rockville Centre train accident, and another 79 died in a Kew Gardens accident. Today's transit system is much safer and more reliable, but it faces huge gaps in both its operating and capital budgets.

The MTA's annual operating expenses are now $3.4 billion greater than its revenues. Taxes on real estate, payrolls and retail sales make up most - but not enough - of the difference. And the gap is worsening; nearly 37 percent of the MTA's annual revenues will soon be used to pay off its debt.

The high borrowing expenses are a result of the MTA tripling its debt in 15 years. The MTA is now in the same position as a homeowner who owed $300,000 on her house and sent a mortgage check to the bank every month for 15 years - only to find out that after a series of home equity loans, she now owes $900,000 and her monthly payments are tripling.

As part of its capital budget, the MTA needs more than $5.5 billion per year to renovate and expand its infrastructure. But the MTA only brings in about $3.5 billion a year. Even the 7.5 percent increase in fares and tolls planned for January won't solve the MTA's financial problems.

The MTA has been aware of its structural deficit for decades. In the 1990s, it tried to change the LIRR's obsolete work rules, which have long inflated labor costs and are now allowing some workers to retire at age 55 with six-figure annual pensions. But LIRR workers shut down the railroad in 1994 rather than change their work rules. The two-day strike ended when, facing political and economic pressures, the Gov. Mario Cuomo forced the MTA to back down.

Next year, a new governor can support the MTA's efforts to operate the LIRR efficiently, but he will need help from New York's congressional delegation. Congress should pass legislation that makes it illegal for LIRR workers to strike. As long as the railroad workers have the power to cripple Long Island's economy, they are likely to maintain their costly work rules.

Under the state's Taylor Law, it is illegal for public employees to go on strike. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that under existing federal law, the LIRR is not subject to the provisions of the Taylor Law. It's no coincidence that this exception has allowed LIRR workers to earn much more than other MTA workers. When subway workers last went on strike in 2005, it did not help them win a more lucrative contract. Instead, they almost went bankrupt when a judge forced them to pay a multimillion-dollar fine and took away their ability to collect members' dues automatically from their paychecks.

But even if the MTA dramatically increases its efficiency, its budget gaps are so huge it still needs to raise more money. Pretending that the MTA's financial problems aren't real - or that easy fixes will miraculously solve them - will just make things much worse later on.

In some ways it's our own fault. We wanted more transit service, generous fare discounts, labor peace, new trains and modernized stations. We didn't want to pay for a 21st-century transportation system, so instead the MTA borrowed billions of dollars. Now the bill has come due.