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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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MTA Bows to NYC

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s credibility with the public took another hit last week when, after announcing layoffs and cutting services due to a supposed budget crisis, they mysteriously found millions of dollars to appease New York City’s Democrats.

The newly-discovered MTA monies are being allocated to the parents of New York City students who use the MTA’s trains and buses lest they be impacted by the region’s broader economic trends. Their MTA, state and city-given right to free and discounted student mass transit fares has survived, thanks to the MTA senior management team’s total capitulation to city-based state legislators, who have since January 2009 completely controlled Albany.

You see, the folks on Long Island and north of the city are ‘rich,’ the city’s Democrats believe, and not only can suburbanites afford to pay full fares for their own train and bus service but they have enough left over to subsidize the $2.25 per trip fare a New York City parent doesn’t want to expend for their child.

Alas, the only way to keep this line of thinking from becoming public policy is to elect more Republicans to the state Legislature and, while you’re at it, a Republican governor from Long Island, too. These are issues I’ll revisit as November 2010 draws closer.

For now, I want to give you some insights into how much an MTA LIRR commuter’s monthly tab has grown since 2003 because I realize only about 20 percent of Long Islanders trek into the city each day. Those in the LIRR’s western Nassau zone closest to Queens have since 2003 seen a 51 percent increase (to $204, from $135) in the cost of their monthly ticket into Penn Station. Over this same time span, the MTA’s per-trip bus and subway fare grew to its current $2.25 from $1.50.

Wait, there’s more. With the city’s Democrats needing their votes to impose the MTA’s payroll tax last year, Long Island’s two Democratic state Senators, Craig Johnson (D-Port Washington) and Brian Foley (D-Blue Point), sided with their Democratic colleagues, and broadened considerably the MTA’s revenue stream. The MTA payroll tax means everyone who makes $50,000 a year in the state’s 12 downstate counties annually pays through their employer, or on their own if self-employed, $170 to the MTA, a fee that grows to $340 for someone earning $100,000 per annum. A business with a payroll of $1 million, for instance, needs to kick in $3,400 a year. The MTA’s newest tax extracts about $1 billion from the metropolitan area’s populace each year.

To soften the impact of its 2009 bailout package, the MTA somehow convinced the media to use the MTA’s positioning language on the payroll tax—it is only 34 cents per $100 earned, reporters point out—to make it sound painless. When you do the actual math, the costs add up.

Mass transit is the lifeblood of the region’s economy. The MTA successfully moves millions of New Yorkers every day. Why, then, can’t the MTA’s decision makers ever get a handle on, or be honest about, its finances?

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