Senate leader urges MTA audit

March 2, 2009 5:10:24 PM PST
State Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith said Monday that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has agreed to share additional financial information he wanted before considering legislation to bail the transit agency out of its financial crisis. The Queens senator said fellow Democrats in his chamber wanted to see the MTA's finances before considering new measures to bolster the MTA, including tolls over East River bridges. The transit agency has projected a $1.2 billion deficit in its operating budget next year and a $3 billion gap by 2012.

Smith said the new information will open "a full vetting of MTA finances, which will allow us to determine the best course of action to address the MTA's budget shortfall."

The MTA operates the New York City subway, Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North Railroad and buses in the city and Long Island, a transit system carries more than 8 million riders on a typical weekday. More than 300 million vehicles a year use its bridges and tunnels.

State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said earlier Monday he would advance legislation to bail out the MTA as soon as he "has clarity" about what Smith needs to get the measure through the Senate. Silver said his goal is to enact it this week.

"Let's remember, the choice here is severe service cuts and large increases in fares or finding the revenues that reduce the need for the large increases in fares or the service cuts," said Silver, a Manhattan Democrat. He also called for more transparency from the MTA and audits of its operations.

Smith said Senate Democrats will submit amendments to MTA legislation proposed by Gov. David Paterson that will give the state comptroller clear authority and fiscal oversight of the MTA.

MTA spokesman Jeremy Soffin said the transit agency "had productive discussions late this afternoon with Senate Finance staff, who asked for the most recent MTA quarterly and annual certified financial statements, which we will provide expeditiously."

The authority's budget is posted on the MTA's Web site. The comptroller already issues reports twice a year about the agency's finances.

Separate legislation advancing in the Assembly would establish tighter fiscal controls over the MTA and other public authorities in the state.

Silver has proposed a compromise plan for the MTA's finances that would establish $2 tolls on East River bridges, like the current subway fare, instead of $5 tolls proposed by a state commission that studied the MTA's financial problems. The commission also proposed a regional payroll tax, since businesses benefit from the transit system that carries workers and customers, and a relatively small fare increase. The MTA's solution would include cutting service and raising some subway and bus fares by 23 percent or more.

Silver said he thinks there's enough support among Assembly Democrats to pass his measure.

"We may have to modify some portions of it in order to make an agreement between the governor, the senator and us," Silver said. "Let's put it this way, one-house bills do not reduce the subway fares or reduce the MTA's proposal for severe service cuts."

Mark Hansen, a spokesman for the Senate Republicans, said there's also "a very serious concern" that the Democrats have not been discussing any money for upstate road and bridge improvements, which have been traditionally linked to mass transit and MTA issues. "That's very troubling. They've always gone hand in hand. That's been the process for decades."

After decades in the Senate minority, Democrats won a narrow 32-30 majority in last fall's elections. Many Democrats are from downstate, while many of the Republicans are from upstate districts.

Also on Monday, Assemblyman Richard Brodsky said Smith's audit plan doesn't go far enough. The Westchester Democrat has proposed legislation that would establish an independent oversight office for the MTA and the state's other public authorities. The legislation would generally tighten controls on the authorities, which traditionally operate with far less oversight that regular state agencies.

The Assembly has previously passed the bill, now pending again in its Ways and Means Committee, and Brodsky said he has discussed it with Smith, who sounded supportive.

Smith has long been an advocate of reforming public authorities, Austin Shafran, his spokesman, said Monday. He declined to comment on prospects for a particular bill before it's been discussed by the Senate's Democratic conference.