2004-12-30 / Front Page

Critics Belt Floundering MTA

By John Toscano

Top priority is to keep the existing transit system running well. Top priority is to keep the existing transit system running well. Under attack all year for imposing the second fare increase in two years, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) continued to attract brickbats from an assortment of public officials last week for not submitting an acceptable long-range budget plan and for suggesting changes in popular transit plans.

The perplexed transportation panel was told by Albany to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new five-year capital improvements plan after Assemblymember Catherine Nolan vetoed the first submission.

From Washington, Congressmember Carolyn Maloney pounced on Authority Chairman Peter Kalikow, for suggesting that continuing with the long-delayed Second Avenue subway line, a pet project of the lawmaker, could be in jeopardy.

For a change of pace, City Councilmember John Liu, a frequent foe of the MTA, made nice with Kalikow for stating that his top priority was to keep the existing transit system running well.

At the same time while the knives were out and aimed at Kalikow, Council Speaker Gifford Miller joined Liu in skewering Mayor Michael Bloomberg for reneging on a plan to purchase new buses for the privately operated bus lines that are in the process of being taken over by the MTA.

Even here the MTA took a hit as Miller and Liu accused the agency of diverting $132 million in federal funds earmarked to purchase new buses to buy new subway cars instead.

Considering the weight of the criticism being heaped on the transit agency, it’s a wonder it didn’t grind to a complete halt.

This latest contretemps regarding the transit agency’s present operations and future planning was set off last Tuesday as Kalikow, in the course of an interview arranged with reporters by his staff, declared that his top priority was to the five-year, $17 billion plan to keep the existing system in good repair and running efficiently. This applied to the subway system, commuter railroads and buses operated by the Authority,

Kalikow said he was committed to this priority even if the state refused to raise taxes to generate more money for its operation. This proposal was immediately shot down by Governor George Pataki.

The beleaguered chairman had floated the tax proposal as a means of filling a $16 billion gap in the Authority’s proposed $27.7 billion, five-year capital improvement plan, which starts with the year 2005.

The following day, Nolan (D–Ridgewood) announced that she would not be voting to approve the five-year plan, which must be acted on by this Friday when the 2004 plan expires.

Nolan, a member of the MTA Capital Program Review Board (CPRB), which must approve the plan by the unanimous vote of its four members, said she was vetoing the plan in order to conduct a full and formal review not only of the MTA plan but also proposals for highways and bridges.

Decisions by the state on all these spending plans would require public hearings, she said. The MTA budget and five-year plan also includes ongoing or proposed construction projects, such as the Second Avenue subway, the rail link from Downtown Manhattan to JFK Airport, and the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) link to Grand Central Station on Manhattan’s East Side.

Much of the money for these projects, all favored by the governor, comes from the federal government, but the state is responsible for a large portion also.

In his talk with reporters, therefore, Kalikow said he would go along with delaying the expansion projects, if necessary, including the Second Avenue subway. This triggered the response from Maloney (D), whose district includes parts of Queens as well as the area where the new subway line will be located.

Without referring to Kalikow, Maloney stated, “Those who would sacrifice New York’s future for short-term gain are not thinking about what’s best for straphangers or for the city economy [now] or for the city economy over the next several decades.”

The veteran lawmaker, who has devoted much time and effort to getting the long-delayed project started, declared, “There is no better investment for New York’s economic future than the Second Avenue subway.”

She pointed out,“The Regional Plan Association (RPA) reports that the Second Avenue subway would create 70,000 jobs during construction and had the capacity for an additional 86,000 jobs after construction.

“The RPA has also estimated that the project could generate more than $14.4 billion in annual Gross City Product (a measure of all the goods and services produced in the city), $7 billion in additional wages and $1.26 billion in economic activity per year in the city. We should not look to sacrifice New York’s economic future every time we meet a short-term challenge that the right political will could overcome.”

Kalikow’s statements also brought a reaction from Liu (D–Flushing), chairman of the council Transportation Committee, which oversees MTA operations in the city.

Liu stated that he commended Kalikow for his newfound commitment to prioritize maintenance of the existing transit infrastructure over future expansion projects.”

Liu continued: “I welcome Chairman Kalikow’s assurance that the authority will use funds from its next Five-Year Capital Plan to first ensure the safety and efficiency of our mass transit system. It would be great if we had the extra billions of dollars to spend on sexy new projects for our transit system, but we must first make sure that the existing system is well maintained and in good repair.”

Liu continued, saying that he hoped Kalikow would also take the same approach when it comes to the Authority’s operational effectiveness.

The lawmaker pointed out: “The Authority needs to get the basics—like a working public announcement system—down first before experimenting with expensive new technologies like computer-driven trains. In these times of fiscal crisis for our mass transit system, we just can’t afford to spend billions of dollars on any more boondoggles.”

On the subject of the pending takeover of the private bus lines, Liu and Miller said in a letter to the mayor: “The ongoing saga of the private bus lines has its roots in broken promises made by this administration and the capriciousness of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Since the much-heralded announcement about the proposed transfer of the [private bus] lines to the MTA two years ago, there have been three missed takeover deadlines, numerous operating authority extensions, continued deterioration of buses and now the long-lingering unhappiness and fears of employees have put us in a position of having to brace for a possible second strike.”

To make matters worse for the 400,000 commuters who use the private lines, the lawmakers said, the mayor had ignored the MTA’s mismanagement and the agency’s hemorrhaging budget and handed over $132 million in federal funds to purchase new buses only to be told the money would be used to purchase subway cars.

They noted that the mayor and the MTA promised that the money to purchase buses would be found elsewhere, but they questioned whether this promise would be kept.

Miller and Liu concluded the letter: “This administration can do better for the people who use these bus lines by truly honoring the deadline for the takeover, getting the MTA’s guarantee—in writing, if necessary—that service will not be diminished but enhanced, and, equally important, ensure that the agency will, in fact, deliver on the promise of new buses.”n

Photo George Tsourovakas

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