By Philip Newman
A city council committee has called for rescinding the 50-cent transit fare hike and for more control over the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which Councilman John Liu said was “caught in crisis of public confidence.”
Although the $2 bus and subway fares took effect Sunday along with higher commuter railroad and bridge and tunnel tolls three days earlier, a hearing on a suit to overturn the increases is set for Friday in a Manhattan court.
The City Council Transportation Committee, headed by Flushing Democrat Liu, approved four resolutions involving the MTA after hearing testimony from City Comptroller Bill Thompson and State Comptroller Alan Hevesi last week.
Both reiterated some of the assertions they made April 23 when each accused the MTA of misleading the public on the need for a fare increase this year. Hevesi said the agency used two sets of books and hid $512 million to justify a fare hike.
Yhe two comptrollers conceded that a fare increase probably would have been necessary in 2004.
“With the revelations that the Transit Authority secretly kept two sets of books, one for public and another for internal use and also hid more than $500,000 in order to justify higher bus and subway fares, the MTA is now caught in its worst crisis of public confidence in its 35-year history,” Liu said at the hearing he conducted last Thursday at City Hall.
The Transportation Committee voted 8-0 on each of four resolutions, which have no force of law but rather express advocacy. The resolutions:
• Call on Gov. George Pataki and the state Legislature to restructure the MTA board to allow voting by members representing the riding public and labor.
• Urge the Legislature and governor to enact legislation preventing the MTA from authorizing any future fare increase until the state comptroller reviews its financial plan to determine whether a fare increase is “reasonable or necessary.”
• Call on the governor to direct the MTA board to rescind its approval of the recent fare increase.
• Support the enactment of a state senate bill to establish an MTA operating oversight committee to review all financial records and budget proposals of the agency whose members are appointed by the governor.
The Straphangers Campaign, which filed the suit to stop the fare hike, argued that the MTA’s 10 public hearings in February on the proposed increase amounted to a “sham” since the public had been given what the group contended was inaccurate financial information.
The lawsuit is being heard by State Supreme Court Justice Louis York, who last week declined to delay the fare increase pending his ruling on the case.
At last week’s court hearing in Manhattan, the MTA argued that rescinding the fare hike would amount to “unscrambling the egg” and would involve reprogramming thousands of subway turnstiles and fare boxes. Officials said it would also cost the agency $1.2 million daily in lost revenue.
MTA Chairman Peter Kalikow and other board members have dismissed the claims of Thompson and Hevesi as politically motivated and denied keeping two sets of books or hiding funds. Kalikow has disputed Hevesi’s contention that the MTA operates in secrecy, but did say the agency might have done more to make it easier for the public to understand its finances.
Besides the lawsuit against the fare increase and the accusations by the two comptrollers, there are other issues at the MTA.
The cost of the MTA’s new headquarters in Lower Manhattan has ballooned from the originally budgeted $135 million to $430 million, the New York Post reported.
Four people have been accused of taking part in a fraudulent operation involving construction of the new MTA headquarters.
The MTA recently removed and placed on administrative leave Louis Anemone, MTA chief of security, and his assistant, Nicholas Casale, after Anemone accused the agency of hindering the security officials’ own investigation of alleged corruption. The MTA then charged that both men interfered with an investigation conducted by the MTA inspector general.
Reach contributing writer Philip Newman by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 136.