MTA funding becomes political football

By Gabriel Rom

The chairman of the MTA has jumped feet first into the sparring match between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, urging both to contribute more money to the struggling transit agency as the aging system grapples with deteriorating service.

Cuomo disclosed last week that he was prepared to give $8 billion in funding to help the Metropolitan Transportation Agency improve its transit infrastructure and improve service after he received a letter from MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast.

The pledge still leaves the state-run agency with a multibillion-dollar funding gap and has put the state and the MTA at odds with the city over who will pick up the tab.

Cuomo’s commitment signals a joint push—one that many transportation reform advocates believe is long overdue—from the MTA and the state to increase the city’s share of MTA funding.

Prendergast wrote a July 23 letter championing the agency’s July 2015 Financial Plan, which will cut more than $1.3 billion from ongoing expenses. A day later he outlined a funding scheme between the MTA, the city and the state to close the funding gap. In his proposed plan, he asked the city to contribute $3.2 billion, the state $7.3 billion and the MTA, $17 billion.

“Governor Cuomo has made it clear that he believes we must solve this problem without raising fares beyond the scheduled increases,” Prendergast wrote. “The MTA has taken this challenge seriously.”

Prendergast was appointed by Cuomo two years ago and was confirmed last month to a full six-year term as chairman. The two recently worked together to cut almost $6 billion of fat from an initial MTA budget.

In an interview on NY1 last week, Cuomo hinted that the state would contribute the requested money before making it official.

Cuomo, who has remained largely silent on MTA funding, explained that he views the current funding scheme as the vestige of an older and more inefficient era in the city’s history.

“Historically, the city didn’t fund the MTA proportionately,” the governor said. “That’s because historically, the city was broke.”

But Cuomo went on to point out that “the city’s financial condition is much different than it was.”

He and de Blasio have been at odds since the governor failed to support the city in recent state budget negotiations involving MTA funding, stricter rent regulations and mayoral control of schools.

The MTA chairman returned to the trough Tuesday, asking the mayor in a letter to come up with the $3.2 billion he had requested. Prendergast contended the city had spent two decades shirking its financial responsibility to the transit agency.

“When the city faced its financial crisis and lacked the resources to restore a crumbling system, the MTA brought it back from the brink of collapse,” Prendergast wrote, referring to the near bankruptcy of the city in the 1970s..

In a pointed statement, Prendergast said 80 percent of the MTA’s $1 trillion assets “directly benefit New York City to a far greater degree than other parts of the MTA service area.”

The mayor said the city wants more information on the source of the state money. The city has already committed $660 million to the capital budget and plans to kick in $1 billion a year to the operating budget.

Prendergast, who is known to be a capable but low profile city administrator, finds himself in new political territory with his strongly staked-out position on MTA funding.

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