Should MTA's board members ride for free?

Battle bruing over MTA board members' perks
June 19, 2008 7:41:09 PM PDT
State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is warning board members of the agency that runs the nation's largest mass transit system that he will sue them if they persist in using free E-ZPass toll payment tags and other transit passes for personal reasons. "My legal position is that the free E-ZPasses are illegal, that they are compensation in terms of the law, and the law is clear that the board members shall not receive compensation," Cuomo said Thursday at a news conference. "If the board persists in receiving these free benefits, I believe we will take legal action that holds the board members personally responsible."

Cuomo was responding to published reports that some of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's 22 board members would oppose a restriction on their personal use of subway and commuter rail passes and free E-ZPass tags, small electronic devices that are attached to vehicles and wirelessly pay as drivers pass through toll lanes. The board is scheduled to vote on the resolution next week.

On May 29, the MTA, which runs the city's bus and subway systems and its suburban commuter rail lines, said it planned to rescind former board members' free-travel perks and restrict current members to using the privilege only for official business.

But published reports on Thursday quoted some board members speaking out against the resolution. David S. Mack, a vice chairman of the authority who has six E-ZPass tags, said, "I would say it's probably going to be voted down," adding, "The board is not happy."

Mack questioned whether he would use the rail system if he didn't have the free pass, asking "Why should I ride and inconvenience myself when I can ride in a car?"

MTA spokesman Jeremy Soffin said Thursday that the policy change is "fair and appropriate" and said the agency was optimistic it would be approved at next week's board meeting.

Mack is the only MTA board member who also sits on the board of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, from which he also gets free E-ZPass usage of Port Authority bridges and tunnels.

The Port Authority offers free E-ZPass tags to its 10 commissioners and only recently rescinded a policy that granted the tags to former commissioners. The commissioner must be in the car that has the E-ZPass, and the agency only deducts charges on its six bridges and tunnels linking the city and New Jersey.

Board chairman Anthony Coscia and one other commissioner did not accept the free E-ZPass; all other commissioners have at least one.

The MTA's vast transit system carries more than 8.2 million riders each weekday. More than 300 million vehicles a year use its bridges and tunnels, which include the Triborough and Verrazano-Narrows bridges and the Brooklyn Battery and Queens Midtown tunnels.

The notion that the board members would try to keep the MTA tags at a time when the agency is considering a fare hike because of a projected operating deficit also brought a negative response from Gov. David Paterson.

"At a time when millions of state residents are feeling the pinch of an economy in turmoil and struggling to support their families, such a decision would demonstrate an utter contempt for average New Yorkers," he said.