On the reappropriation of transit money, Foye says it’s just what governors have to do sometimes

Foye, Prendergast, Vacca and Russianoff. (Dana Rubinstein)
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Patrick Foye, Governor Andrew Cuomo's pick to serve as executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, defended a governor's right to cut funding for mass transit as he sees fit, saying, "Governors unfortunately have to make tough fiscal and policy choices."

Foye was talking, in particular, about former governor David Paterson's redirection of some $143 million from what was supposed to be M.T.A.-dedicated funding. But this morning's discussion, hosted by law firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan and featuring Foye, M.T.A. New York City Transit president Tom Prendergast, the Straphangers Campaign's Gene Russianoff and City Council transportation chair James Vacca, started more broadly.

It began with Russianoff, a mass-transit advocate, discussing the "double whammy" that hit riders in 2009, when the M.T.A. board approved both fare hikes and service cuts.

"First in May 2009 the fare went up, less than had been predicted, but there was a promise made that all the service cuts were taken off the table," said Russianoff. "And then Governor Paterson first, and then Governor Cuomo later—it's hard to come up with a polite word—stole $260 million to use for other things in the state budget, and the service cuts were brought back. So you have bus riders who were told that they were getting a fare increase, but that in exchange for it, there would be no service cuts. And then suddenly there's what I see as a manufactured crisis, where the state wanted to balance its own budget and did it on the backs of the riding public."

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The discussion turned to bus service on Staten Island, until Vacca chimed in, and turned it first to congestion pricing, which was supposed to have created a dedicated, secure revenue stream for mass transit funding, and then to the former governor, whose raiding of M.T.A. funding raised doubts about the inviolability of any sort of lock-box funding.

"Governor Paterson and the state legislature raised a whole series of taxes, business taxes and other taxes, and they then said, 'This is the lockbox money that's going to keep the M.T.A. afloat,'" Vacca said. "It was around $143 million. And at the last moment, the legislature and Governor Paterson opened up the lockbox to put the money in the general fund. And that hurt the M.T.A."

Foye leapt to Paterson's defense, and to the defense of the prerogatives of the governor's office.

"I just want to ... say a word in defense of Governor Paterson," said Foye. "While the money went into the general fund, the money in the general fund is used for things like, to help people with developmental disabilities, people who don't have housing, people with AIDS, education, aid to local governments, etc."

"Governors unfortunately have to make tough fiscal and policy choices," said Foye. "Obviously, I believe in mass transit. I took the 6:27 from Port Washington this morning. I served for 18 months on the board of the M.T.A. But in Governor Paterson's defense, he was making, as elected governors have to do, tough policy and fiscal choices, and that's just the lot of the governor."

Russianoff responded that he wasn't troubled by the notion of competing priorities, but said, "For me, it's simply a question of transparency."