4:42 pm Aug. 15, 2012
Like Hillary Clinton helicoptering into Pakistan, Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman drove this morning to Poughkeepsie, a city where hostility to the cash-strapped authority he oversees runs deep.
He drove there, because the first Metro-North train to Poughkeepsie would have arrived 40 minutes too late for the 8 a.m. breakfast he was keynoting. (Next year's new service expansions should solve that issue, according to an M.T.A. spokesman.)
Lhota was there to address the Dutchess County Regional Chamber of Commerce at a breakfast held at the Poughkeepsie Grand Hotel, the nicest, and perhaps only, hotel still left in the city's impoverished downtown.
"Someone told me coming in here would be like entering the lion's den," said Lhota, at the start of his half-hour speech.
It was, kind of.
State Senator Stephen Saland, who sponsored a bill that would repeal a payroll tax that sends more than $1 billion a year the M.T.A.'s way, was in attendance. So was a reporter from the Poughkeepsie Journal, whose editorial page has called for the M.T.A.'s dissolution.
And so Lhota spent a good portion of his address emphasizing the M.T.A.'s current state of efficiency.
He said that the M.T.A. had cut $700 million from its annual operating budget, and eliminated 3,500 jobs, plus lots of printers and cell phones and unncessary phone lines.
He mentioned that he was budget director under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, which must have resonated with some people in that reliably Republican town, and said, "We've done everything."
His remarks got applause, twice.
One round came when he said, "The Hudson Line yesterday was at 99 percent on-time performance."
The other came when he said, "We've added quiet car service on all of the peak trains systemwide," an initiative that is, according to Lhota, more popular with women than with men.
Above all, he made a case for the M.T.A. and its importance to the region.
In 2009, as part of a package intended to rescue the authority from the recession's doldrums, the state legislature passed something called the payroll mobility tax, which levied $.34 cents on every $100 of payroll in the counties served by the M.T.A.
The tax has since proven immensely unpopular in all the suburbs north and south of the city, where employers feel they are being unfairly burdened with a levy that mostly benefits city residents.
Governor Andrew Cuomo has not been deaf to their complaints. Last year, he agreed to roll back the tax, and then compensate the M.T.A. with monies from the general fund.
But there's no guarantee that he, or future administrations, will continue to do so.
Lhota pointed out that Metro-North, whose Hudson Line runs up the river's east bank to Poughkeepsie, is the largest commuter rail line in the country and is on track to serve 85 million commuters this year, up 3 million from last.
"Metro-North moves more people in four months than Amtrak does all year," he said, adding that, since Metro-North's advent in 1983 (when it took over Conrail's New York and Connecticut commuter rails), ridership in Dutchess County has nearly quadrupled.
He touted his recently announced "sweeping investments" to Metro-North that will include 230 more trains per week, part of his pre-fare-hike effort to foster goodwill.
He offered a full-throated endorsement for allowing Metro-North trains to access Penn Station on the west side, rather than merely Grand Central on the east.
"I do believe that as we move closer and closer to what we call East Side Access, allowing folks on the Long Island Railroad to terminate in Grand Central Terminal, we must allow the people who ride Metro-North to also terminate within the West Side at Penn Station," he said.
And, Lhota pointed out that, based on customer polling, Metro-North's Dutchess County riders are comparatively wealthy, with households averaging more than $115,000 a year, about 66 percent higher than the county average.
"So that means high-income wage earners are bringing their money back to Dutchess County," he said. "They're living here and they're spending their money here. But even more than that, you understand that we make it possible to live here but work in Manhattan."
All of this, he said, "does come at a cost."
One of those costs is the payroll mobility tax, which he said he understands is unpopular, but if it eliminated as Saland would like, must be replaced with something else.
"I need to find a way ... whatever happens with the payroll mobility tax, to find a substitute for it that's more equitable and more fair," said Lhota. "But one thing you should know, is that the money ... coming from the payroll mobility tax is not going to New York City. It's actually going to the counties.
"But be that as it may, I will work with Senator Saland, I will work with the assemblymember, on trying to find ways to make the payroll mobility tax or its replacement more equitable," he continued. "We do need the money. As I mentioned before, there's no commuter railroad in the country that can work unsubsidized. So we need to find some form of subsidy that is more transparent, more direct, more equitable, than the payroll mobility tax."
One potential revenue-generating solution that's been making the rounds is Sam Schwartz's new congestion pricing plan.
But in a follow-up phone call, Lhota clarified he had no specific replacement option in mind.
"I fully understand that people don't like the payroll mobility tax," he said. "But I think it's important for people to understand the M.T.A. needs the revenue from that tax or some other tax."
You can watch Lhota's whole talk here.