A No. 1 train at the 72nd Street station in...

A No. 1 train at the 72nd Street station in New York Credit: CRAIG RUTTLE, 2010

The unpopular MTA payroll tax is demonstrably a winning political issue. It has toppled incumbent state legislators, and it funds a massive government agency with no shortage of critics. Before it can be repealed, however, any plan to replace its $1.5 billion in revenue, as well as the $10 billion needed to fund the next three years of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority capital program, must be credible and politically feasible.

Freshman Republican Sens. Lee Zeldin of Shirley and Jack Martins of Mineola, whose victories were keys to returning the State Senate majority to the GOP, are aggressively driving the repeal effort. Earlier this week, they unveiled a bill that would exempt businesses with 25 employees or fewer, as well as all public and private schools. Under the existing law, schools pay but get a refund. So this would just stop the upfront payment. In the seven suburban counties, the tax would be reduced in the next two years and eliminated at the start of 2014. New York City businesses would only have their rates reduced.

The senators calculate the repeal would cost the MTA $767 million a year beginning in 2014. But their calculation on how to replace that money doesn't compute.

First is their claim that an improved economy would increase funds coming to the MTA from another revenue stream, the real estate transfer tax. However, in this stalled economy, that revenue isn't likely to return to its 2007 peak anytime soon. Their other suggestions are the usual laundry list of waste, fraud and abuse: cutting overtime, reducing jobs, and selling MTA land and buildings. Trimming the lard at the MTA should always be a priority. Chairman Jay Walder has already put the authority's headquarters up for sale and has been chopping other costs, but one-shot deals will not be enough. Another recommendation is privatizing the city's bus system. That impossible notion is a good measure of how fast this bill will die in Albany.

Also troubling is Zeldin's premise that Suffolk County, especially its eastern reaches, doesn't benefit as much from MTA service as the city does. Beyond the obvious interwoven relationships between New York City and its suburbs, here's one often overlooked example of how Suffolk's economic health depends on the MTA. On a summer Friday, such as today, average ridership from Manhattan to the Hamptons and Montauk swells from the normal 1,500 to 6,500. Aside from the sales tax revenue and jobs generated by the resort area, mass transit keeps many cars off the already busy roads.

Replacing the revenue from the payroll tax can't be divorced from finding the almost $10 billion the MTA needs to complete the next three years of its capital spending. Those projects for Long Island include completing the access for LIRR trains to Grand Central Terminal, the purchase of 160 new rail cars, replacement of a key bridge on the Port Washington branch and overall repair and maintenance of the rail beds.

The payroll tax wasn't the best choice as a way to fund the MTA. Zeldin and Martins campaigned for its repeal and are still in the early stages of coming up with a way to deliver on their promise. Just wishing it will disappear, however, won't make it happen. hN