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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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MTA Blooper Reel

National Lampoon’s Animal House told the story of a fictitious college fraternity chapter which brought about its own demise. With their fate sealed, one of the fraternity brothers declared that the situation demanded a “really stupid and futile gesture be done on somebody’s part.”

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), like Delta House, is always on the brink of disaster, perhaps explaining why the MTA has either initiated, or been on the receiving end of, really stupid and futile gestures. Examples abound.

MTA chairman and chief executive officer Jay Walder stunned me last month when he appeared at a press conference with New York City students who were concerned that, because of proposed state and city budget cuts, they might someday lose their free and discounted MTA subway and bus trips. Yeah, after a lifetime of free or discounted rides, it had to be a bummer for these teenagers to realize their parents might actually have to pay fair-market value ($2.25 per trip) for a student MetroCard. Also, doesn’t anyone within the five boroughs reside within walking distance of their school?

“I strongly believe that students in New York City should be able to travel to school without paying, just like students around the state,” Chairman Walder stated, in a news release, adding later, “I wish I could commit to fund this program, but the MTA simply does not have the money to cover this State and City responsibility any longer.”

The Paterson administration is facing a $9 billion budget deficit and rightfully determined that this MTA student perk was neither politically justifiable nor economically sustainable. Even The New York Times editorial board, which rarely encounters a governmental subsidy it doesn’t like, had trouble last week defending the MTA’s insistence it needs to continue spending $214 million a year for city students’ free and discounted subway and bus trips while the MTA was at the same time reducing services because of budgetary constraints. Memo to Mr. Walder: Leave the grandstanding to others, and preserve your credibility, the most important asset you’ll ever have.

Really stupid and futile MTA-related gestures have taken place in Suffolk County, too. The town supervisors of Babylon, Brookhaven, Huntington, Islip, Riverhead, Smithtown and Southampton announced on March 29 their intent to file a lawsuit against the state and the MTA, challenging the validity of the MTA payroll tax. The tax, imposed by the Democrat-controlled state Legislature in 2009, extracts $340 out of every $100,000 earned in New York’s 12 downstate counties, and allocates those monies into the MTA’s coffers.

Governments are not exempt from the MTA payroll tax, and these seven town supervisors have paid the fee as municipal employers. Yet, if you’re going to launch a court action which could blow a $1 billion-plus hole in the MTA’s annual operating budget, aren‘t you obligated to explain how you’d make up the shortfall? Nah, I doubt the town supervisors even want to win the lawsuit. They’ve got their headlines, and can now get on with the important business of steering the MTA payroll tax litigation work to their favorite private-sector law firms.

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

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