Budget deal includes a diminished M.T.A. diversion

budget-deal-includes-diminished-mta-diversion
A subway entrance in Times Square. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
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The Metropolitan Transportation Authority appears to be taking a $30 million hit in the state budget.

That's $10 million less than Governor Andrew Cuomo originally envisioned, but from the standpoint of transportation advocates, it's still an avoidable diversion of scarce resources from a financially fragile agency that will, if anything, serve only to increase the burden on mass transit users who are already suffering faster-than-inflation fare hikes.

Put simply: the budget diverts $30 million from the Mass Transportation Operating Assistance Fund, whose revenues come from supposedly M.T.A.-dedicated taxes.

The money will be used to defray state underwriting costs for M.T.A. debt. When that debt was issued, it was done so with the explicit understanding that the state would service it, not the M.T.A.

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“The Executive Budget supports transit by using $30 million to pay down some of the debt accrued for MTA projects while also increasing operating aid to the MTA by another $85 million to over $4.3 billion," said Morris Peters, a spokesman for the Division of Budget. 

The offices of the governor, Assembly, and Independent Democratic Conference did not respond to requests for comment.

When asked for comment, Scott Reif, a spokesman for the Senate Republicans, emailed, "Nothing specific, part of an overall agreement on the budget."

"If this is in fact true, that this diversion has gone through, there's a lot of disappointed advocates and transit riders," said Nadine Lemmon, the Albany legislative advocate for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

The state, and the M.T.A. that it controls, likes to counter that the diversion is irrelevant, since the state is increasing operating assistance to the M.T.A. for the second year in a row. In other words, it's all a wash.

"[T]his is the second budget in a row to give the M.T.A. more state funding than the M.T.A. itself expected," said M.T.A. spokesman Adam Lisberg, in an email.

Advocates counter that the since the increase in operating assistance derives from economically sensitive taxes, the M.T.A. is merely seeing the upside of a recovering economy. At the end of the day, the M.T.A. is getting $30 million less than it would otherwise, and riders will pay the difference.

"We suffered through the bad times," Gene Russianoff, attorney for NYPIRG's Straphangers Campaign, told me recently. "Now with the economy improving, the M.T.A. is being treated like a cash cow by the governor’s office."

Here's the relevant budget language:

12 9. $30,000,000 from the mass transportation operating assistance fund,

13 metropolitan mass transportation operating assistance account (21402),

14 to the general debt service fund (40150), for reimbursement of the

15 state's expenses in connection with payments of debt service and related

16 expenses for the metropolitan transportation authority's state service

17 contract bonds.