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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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MTA: Money, Money And More Money

Days after spending $242 for a monthly LIRR ticket into Penn Station, $107 more than I paid for the same trip in 2003, I saw an MTA public service announcement (PSA) on television. The message: don’t stand too close to the platform, a train might come and hit you.

What’s next; a PSA telling people to come in from the rain? I expressed my opinion of the PSA that same day to the MTA’s press office, and they explained in response to my queries that TV stations were not charging the MTA for airing the PSA, and the PSAs had been produced in-house. Still, it pained me to see money wasted on a reiteration of the obvious.

I should acknowledge at the outset, however, that the LIRR restored this month trains it had discontinued in 2010 on the Long Beach, Montauk and Port Jefferson branches due to budget reductions. Yet New Yorkers need to look past the return of certain services, the price of a LIRR ticket or the cost of subway fares and bridge and tunnel tolls, when assessing how the MTA, the LIRR’s parent agency, secures billions of dollars in revenues for its bank account each year. Indeed, the LIRR’s Train Talk newsletter said it best in March 2010: “As is the case with virtually all public transit systems, the price of a LIRR ticket is significantly less than the actual cost of the ride, a shortfall that is made up almost entirely by government subsidies.”  

Train Talk was silent on who finances these government subsidies. I’ll explain.  Since the state Legislature enacted the MTA’s epic bailout nearly four years ago, the MTA has generated hundreds of millions of dollars annually for itself by levying a mobility tax on the region’s employers and the self-employed, boosting the MTA’s rental car tax, slapping a supplemental MTA fee on vehicle registration renewals; and imposing a 50-cent MTA tax on taxi cab rides originating in the city.  The MTA even gets a piece of the action on every downstate New York real estate transaction involving a mortgage through an MTA mortgage recording tax. The relentlessness and breadth of the MTA’s money grabbing is breathtaking.

I’ve argued previously in this space that there are better ways to generate a steady, reliable cash stream for the MTA.

The four city-owned, toll-free East River crossings into Manhattan should be transferred to the MTA. All-electronic tolls would be then installed at each of them, with the monies going directly to the MTA.  Former MTA chairman Richard Ravitch advocated this course of action when he was New York’s lieutenant governor because it would accomplish three public policy goals: fund mass transit, discourage urban driving and reduce air pollution. But this move would require the approval of the Democrat-controlled City Council and the Democrat-dominated state Assembly, and the vast majority of those lawmakers will breathe their last protecting a motorist’s right to travel toll-free into Manhattan.

The MTA should also bring to a halt tomorrow the MTA’s Fulton Street Transit Center project in lower Manhattan. The Citizens Budget Commission (CBC) stated in an October 2012 report that the Center, slated originally for completion in 2009, may open in 2014. The CBC further said the project is $650 million over-budget.  In other words, it is a municipal crime scene that should be covered in yellow tape.  

To recoup wrongfully expended rider and taxpayer dollars, the MTA’s board should retain a nationally renowned forensic accounting firm, and ask them to flag every “Change Order” associated with the Fulton Street debacle. Change orders are the documents private-sector vendors must fill out when asking the MTA for monies in excess of what was set forth in their original contract with the MTA.  The LIRR’s disability scammers and alleged copper thieves get all the headlines, but I’m confident the cumulative price tags tied to retired workers’ fake injuries and active employees’ metal heists are comparable to what some Fulton Street Center vendors have bilked from the MTA’s coffers.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: