New York lawmakers weigh funding measures as MTA feels the heat

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As state lawmakers enter the homestretch for the fiscal 2020 budget, debate over a congestion pricing package and other measures to boost mass-transit funding in the New York City region is intensifying.

The clock is ticking. New York State’s budget is due April 1.

“We don’t have time,” state Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, said at last week’s oversight hearing on the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Lower Manhattan.

The MTA, which operates the city’s subways and buses, two commuter railroads and several intraborough bridges and tunnels, is one of the largest municipal issuers with roughly $41 billion in debt.

Ongoing breakdowns and delays have besieged the MTA. Headline fiascoes include last week’s collapse of a wooden beam onto a car windshield below an elevated L-train platform in Queens.

MTA officials countered Sunday, saying January on-time performance was up 32% from last year and major delays down 50% — a four-year best in both categories.

Its officials are pushing the state for a reliable funding source.

“We’re at a critical time for the MTA,” managing director Ronnie Hakim told the Senate’s joint panel of the committees of transportation, and corporations, authorities and commissions.

Hakim cited a projected operating budget gap that could soar to $1 billion by 2022. The authority has yet to submit to state officials its capital program request for 2020 to 2024.

Its board will meet this week under several clouds, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s call for an overhaul of the authority, which he called a “disgrace” earlier this month.

Uncertainties include the fate of any congestion pricing package for Manhattan borough south of 60th Street — advocates say it could generate $1 billion annually for mass transit and up to $15 billion through bonding — and the need to fully fund the next five-year capital program, from 2020 to 2024.

Its current capital plan is $33 billion, $3 billion of which is self-funded through bridge and toll revenue.

State senators grilled MTA officials about high debt levels and bloated bureaucracies.

“The issue is debt service,” said Gustavo Rivera, D-Bronx. “It is why we have to go into the pockets of riders.”

Patrick Foye, the MTA’s executive director, said debt service accounts for 16% of the authority’s operating budget. Labor, overtime and materials consume higher percentages, he added.

According to Cuomo’s budget amendments, a six-person panel would coordinate a reorganization of the MTA and establish congestion-pricing parameters including such variables as time-of-day tolls. The panel would also oversee audits of the MTA’s capital and operating budgets.

Cuomo’s announcement triggered a rebuke from Veronica Vanterpool, an MTA board member since 2016 and an appointee of Mayor Bill de Blasio. Several state entities plus the city and state comptrollers already scrutinize the MTA, according to Vanterpool.

“Another oversight body is proposed? That's dysfunction,” she said.

De Blasio senior advisor Sherif Soliman said the mayor would resist state control of city streets and any siphoning from the city budget to pay for congestion pricing.

The city, said Soliman, accounts for $11 billion, or 70%, of the MTA’s operating budget in direct, indirect and in-kind support. It also contributed $2.5 billion to the MTA’s capital program and $418 million in operating and capital funds last year to the authority’s “subway action plan,” a series of triage fixes.

“One thing we must make clear as revenue options are considered is that revenue cannot be gathered from the city budget directly,” Soliman said.

“The impact on our capital budget, if revenue was provided directly from the city budget, would be devastating, potentially damaging our credit rating [and] imperiling basic infrastructure like schools, parks, roads and bridges, water and sewer.”

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State budgets Infrastructure Andrew Cuomo Bill de Blasio Metropolitan Transportation Authority State of New York City of New York, NY New York