As Joe Lhota, chairman of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, stood before the media after a day of praise last Wednesday from the riding public and some editorial writers, one reporter asked him if the accolades produced an out-of-body experience.

“I’m getting used to it. It’s not what I expected,” Lhota said with a slight grin. “The only problem with laudatory comments like that is that there is only one place to go from there.”

The MTA, whose sheer enormity makes it an easy target for critics, was in feel-good mode at last week’s MTA meeting even while acknowledging many challenges, as the authority introduced its $13 billion preliminary 2013 budget and July financial plan through 2016. The authority, whose New York City region public-transit system is the biggest in the United States, agreed to restore about 30% of its $93 million in service cuts from 2010.

The 27 public speakers Wednesday were far less acrimonious than at typical public sessions.

“Joe Lhota has engaged in a series of masterstrokes. There’s been a sea change in the public’s attitude toward the MTA,” said Mitchell Moss, director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University.

Moss served on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 12-member advisory committee that screened potential successors to Jay Walder after Walder left to become chief executive of Hong Kong’s MTR Corp.

But Lhota and other top MTA brass know better than to take victory laps. While the mood at 347 Madison Ave. was a far cry from that of the same budget meeting a year earlier — when board finance chairman Andrew Saul railed at the agency’s rising debt and called it “a ticking time bomb” — words such as “risk” and “fragile” also punctuated budget conversations.

“Our budget is fragile,” Lhota said. “It is a risk and I’d perceive it as a risk.”

The agency, with steep capital and operating costs, projects surpluses of about $46 million in fiscal 2012 and 2013, but then shortfalls from fiscal 2014 to 2016 that range from $14 million to $231 million.

Even those forecasts make a huge assumption about the MTA’s pending contract with the Transport Workers Union Local 100 — that it will include “net-zero” labor settlements, meaning three years of no wage increases, or the countering of any increases with work-rule changes or increased payments for health and other benefits.

“The big question is, what will happen with the labor negotiations and the MTA’s net-zero initiative,” said Nicole Johnson, a senior vice president at Moody’s Investors Service.

Moss likes the MTA’s stance. “There are always intangibles in an MTA budget, but this budget says that if the union has any pay increases, they have to have productivity increases. That’s a thoughtful and very intelligent approach,” he said.

Another variable the MTA acknowledged in the July plan is the projected saving of more than $230 million by 2016 by providing free transit fares for handicapped riders who are eligible for the much more expensive Access-A-Ride service.

Other budgetary burdens include the soaring costs of pensions, health care and other post-employment benefit estimates; less funding from Washington and Albany, the latter through the partial rollback of the payroll mobility tax; and higher workers compensation costs.

“The future financial outlook for the system remains stressed,” data provider Morningstar Inc. said in a report.

The MTA also assumes $450 million and $500 million, respectively, from 7.5% fare and toll increases planned for 2013 and 2015.

Next year’s hikes are scheduled to take effect in March, with public hearings scheduled for the fall.

Lhota acknowledged the debt problem, stemming largely from the capital needs of a vast and aging system. Major projects include the Second Avenue subway and East Side access for Long Island Rail Road trains.

“We have to maintain and expand our network. Debt service is what we need to do,” he said.

Morningstar said the MTA’s debt profile contains significant exposure to variable-rate bonds and derivative agreements. “They’re probably a little more complex than other systems, but then, the MTA’s a different animal,” said analyst Rachel Barkley.

The firm cited the authority’s $2 billion in swap exposure at the close of fiscal 2011, not including Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority debt.

“Collateral provisions are included in many of the swap agreements, which would require the authority to post collateral under certain circumstances, further straining the financial profile,” Morningstar said in a report.

Moody’s rates the MTA Aa2, while Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings assign AA ratings.

The MTA issues transportation revenue bonds,  senior and subordinate Triborough authority bonds, and dedicated tax fund bonds.

“It is a complex debt structure, with four major debt securities which are different credits,” said Moody’s Johnson. “With the transportation revenue bonds, you have bonds secured by operating revenues from fares, and also various taxes that have been negatively impacted by the economy. During the recession, ridership also dropped, and that hurt farebox receipts.”

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the MTA plans to sell $1.15 billion of Series 2012B Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority general revenue refunding bonds. The TBTA is known formally as MTA Bridges and Tunnels.

Proceeds of the deal will refund Series 2002B bonds with maturity running to 2042.

Goldman, Sachs & Co. is lead manager.

Lamont Financial Services Corp. is financial advisor and Hawkins Delafield & Wood is bond counsel.

Internally, the MTA has applied some outside-the-farebox logic to raising revenue and cutting costs.

Chief financial officer Robert Foran told the board Wednesday that efforts on costs large and small have brought annual recurring savings of $686 million.

Initiatives have ranged from a crackdown on fare evasion, notably at subway stations with shuttered booths and on Staten Island bus routes, to using floating-rate notes for bond sales to diversify the agency’s short-market portfolio. Floating-rate notes adjust weekly, based on a Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association index.

“The floating-rate note product is a fairly new development that we believe is an important vehicle for the MTA,” finance director Patrick McCoy said in a recent interview.

The agency is also exploring corporate advertising on the fronts of its MetroCard fare tickets.

Under-the-radar trimming has included eliminating and downsizing vehicles and doing likewise for mobile devices, computers and printers.

“They’ve been aggressive about a broad range of things. They’ve been creative, and that has helped them,” Morningstar’s Barkley said.

Though Lhota is a longtime player in New York’s inner workings, having served as deputy mayor under Rudolph Giuliani and most recently as executive vice president of Madison Square Garden, Moss said he brings enough of an outside perspective to the MTA.

“The agency needed new blood,” Moss said. “Gov. Cuomo made a brilliant decision to hire a manager and not a train buff. Lhota’s the right guy at the right time. He’s very improvisational and he’s equally comfortable with the labor unions, the finance people and the media.”

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