What the Senate Republicans got in exchange for not defunding the M.T.A.

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Long Island Railroad train. (Marc Flores, via flickr)
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Earlier this week, the State Senate backed off its threats to hold up the Metropolitan Transit Authority capital program, agreeing to increase the transit authority's bonding cap by $7 billion and abandoning a proposed $770 million cut.

What did the Republican Senators, whose conference is dominated by Long Islanders who aren’t particularly keen on M.T.A. funding, get in return?

It's hard to say, given the way budget agreements lump together lots of unrelated issues, allowing the sort of cross-topical horse-trading that makes concessions impossible for the public to track with much accuracy.

But it appears that what the Senate Republicans might have been holding out for, in this case, was more money for non-city road and bridge projects. And that they got enough of it to claim victory.

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According to the governor’s announcement yesterday, the new state budget “funds the New York Works Program with $232 million in state capital funds and $917 million in new Federal funds for a total of $1.2 billion in new spending to accelerate repair, replacement and improvement of deficient roads and bridges.”

The governor has also agreed to sign a memorandum of understanding guaranteeing that D.O.T. funding is spent with some “parity” between upstate and Long Island, and New York City, according to a Senate source.

“I do believe there’s going to be an M.O.U. on the D.O.T. funding aspect,” said Denise Richardson, managing director of the General Contractors Association. “They’re going to add another $200 million.”

The governor’s office told Capital it's a standard M.O.U. that is signed every time there is a new capital plan.

That may well be, but it’s also precisely what some Senate Republicans have been demanding for a while now.

“Information-hungry legislators emphasized the need for a Memorandum of Understanding between the agency and the Legislature on the NYSDOT Capital Program’s targets,” reported the Tri-State Transportation Campaign January.

And during last Wednesday's session, Binghamton Senator Tom Libous complained that, “there was no parity or capital fund for roads and bridges.”

The governor has also agreed to a five-year capital plan for roads and bridges that will start at the same time the next M.T.A.’s five-year capital plan does, in 2015.

“We are in a position right now where we're negotiating a budget and we have no five-year plan, as we've always had, for roads and bridges throughout this state,” said Libous on Wednesday.

Finally, while there had been some talk of merging Long Island’s Happauge office with New York City’s, D.O.T. commissioner Joan McDonald has sent a letter to Skelos promising not to close any of the agency’s 11 regional offices this year, according to the Senate source.

As far as that D.O.T. funding is concerned, it’s not quite clear what “parity” means or even whether, as a principle, it’s advisable, but the demand for it is age-old.

“Historically, for the last 10 years that I’ve been doing this kind of stuff, the parity issue between upstate, downstate on D.O.T. spending in general and then D.O.T. as a whole against the M.T.A., that’s always been there,” said Richardson.

“Frankly, I don’t know that we would want to see the governor committing to parity, because the money should go to where the capital needs are,” she added.

Today, on WOR radio, host John Gambling asked Senate majority leader Dean Skelos about M.T.A. funding. The majority leader said that there was money for mass-transit capital improvements, and then in the very next breath said there was also money for bridges and highways, which, he said, are in a state of disrepair.