In New York, former subway rider Eric Cantor says a transit-cutting bill is just ‘honest budgeting’

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Eric Cantor gives a speech. (Heritage Foundation, via flickr)
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The first question for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor at this morning's Association for a Better New York breakfast was about the Republicans' latest transportation bill, which threatens the stream of dedicated funding the M.T.A. receives from the federal government.

The question came from Lee Sander, the former head of the M.T.A. and the city's transit commissioner in the Giuliani administration.

"Somehow I sort of figured I'd get that question," said Cantor, who started his answer by describing how, when he was studying for his master's in real estate at Columbia in the late 1980s, he used to commute from 80th and Columbus to his future wife's place at 8th and Mercer.

"You can imagine the subway ride there," he said, to not many laughs.

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Cantor said the bill, which could cut approximately $1 billion in funding from the already-strapped M.T.A., was actually an attempt to "get beyond just a short-term extension to provide some certainty in the area of transportation."

"I think the starting point for this discussion is no different than the starting point for most other conversations in Washington: there's just not enough money," said Cantor, who unofficially speaks for the Tea Party wing of the party among the House leadership. "So how do we go about changing the way we do things, leveraging private dollars, and recognizing reality?"

Cantor said the problem was, essentially, that the "user fees"—or fares, as they're more commonly known—are "nowhere near enough to satisfy the growing needs of our infrastructure, from repair maintenance and expansion standpoint, so the decision was made to try and fund five years' worth of transit needs outside the trust fund, and then without any notion beyond that."

But he also identified the other glaring, political problem for transit advocates: "The numbers in Washington, in Congress, say most people aren't from areas where mass transit is so important."

Cantor, who represents Richmond, Va. in the House, included himself in that group, but said he understood transit was "critical" to the area, and said he had accepted an offer of "counsel and wisdom" from one of New York's deputy mayors, Cas Holloway, to advise him on the city's needs. ("We are extremely concerned about the House transportation bill and with Majority Leader Cantor here in the city we wanted to make the case with him directly and appreciate his willingness to listen," said a spokesman for the mayor, Marc LaVorgna, in an email.)

Cantor said he hoped "to help work with you to try and fix that," but didn't sound overly compromising when he cast the transportation bill as just one example of the House's new focus on "honest budgeting."

"We really approach our majority in that way," he said. "And it's been unfortunately sort of a shocker to some who have been used to operating on this never-ending ability to incur increased debt."

After the speech, Sander and a few others descended on Representative Nan Hayworth, the lone attendee at the event from among the Republicans in New York's House delegation, who have been put in something of a difficult spot by the bill, which forces them to choose between their constituents who rely on mass transit and their loyalty to the House leadership.

"My big thing is that the federal government should only be involved when it's truly something you can't handle at the state level," she told her questioners, without getting up from her seat near the front.

Sander talked to her about how much New York contributes to the federal government and how other big cities like Chicago and Los Angeles also rely on transit funding.

"No, no, I understand, I understand it completely," she said.

Hayworth cited her experience as a physician and compared the problem to the health care system, where one variable can't be isolated.

"It's all part of a continuum," she said.