MTA insists fares won't be raised to fill $15 billion budget shortfall

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A.J. Ross has the story. (WABC)

MTA officials admitted Wednesday more money is needed to fill a $15 billion budget hole, but insist it won't come from raising fares.

Although a transit official suggested just days ago the financial burden could eventually fall on the backs of riders to pay for the MTA's capital improvement project, MTA board chairman Thomas Prendergast firmly put the brakes on those claims.

"We have never ever closed the capital program on the backs of the fare payers," said Prendergast. "That's unconscionable, that's not our desire. That's not what we're going to do but we have to get support from the stakeholders who can bring finance to the table and enable us to fund it."

The proposed 5 year capital budget plan would cover not only repairs and maintenance but enhancements and upgrades on the city's subways, buses, and trains.

MTA officials say they also need this money now because of record ridership across the board with nearly 6 million people riding the city's subways every day.

MTA officials have been in ongoing talks with both the city and state to come up with alternate solutions to fill the budget gap.

In a written statement a city spokesperson says... "A strong and dependable public transit system is vital for millions of working New Yorkers and hundreds of thousands of businesses. We look forward to working with our State colleagues to ensure the MTA can meet the needs of our city."

The MTA's $32 billion, 5-year capital budget plan is only half funded. The board said the approval and funding of this new plan is its top priority.

If the agency is forced to fund the gap by issuing more debt, it would have to raise fares and tolls by 15 percent, MTA Chief Financial Officer Robert Foran told board members Monday at a finance committee meeting.

"I have to say if there is no resolution, if we do not receive adequate funding to carry us through at least ... two years, we don't have sufficient funds to keep the program going," Foran said.

Foran was quick to note that he wasn't suggesting that the board has discussed a fare increase, saying he was describing a hypothetical scenario. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who controls the MTA, has described the capital plan as "bloated," which implies that he will expect significant cuts in order for it to pass in the state legislature this summer, but he has not offered any solutions for funding it.

Board members expressed frustration over the lack of action in Albany.

"This is a freight train coming at us," said one, Jeffrey Kay. "We have a $32 billion problem. We don't have a seat at the table. We have no choice but to then act on one thing only, which is by increasing the fares."

Experts said the city's aging trains and buses, which already lag far behind other global metropolises, will deteriorate considerably if the transit authority is unable to digitize a century-old subway signaling system, replace miles of subway tracks and cars and fix tunnel lighting, among many critical repairs. It also won't be able to forge ahead with major projects, such as the new subway line running along Second Avenue.

The general consensus among transportation experts is that the price tag isn't high enough to cover the massive amount of work that needs to be done.

For subway riders, perhaps the most important improvement included in the capital plan is the installation of communications-based train control systems on several subway lines, which will effectively digitize the trains. That means they'll be able to run much closer together and more efficiently, rather than stopping and waiting for other trains to pass ahead of them.

Cuomo announced last week that the MTA will receive a nearly $1 billion federal loan for safety improvements meant to avoid a repeat of a 2013 derailment that killed four people.

The $967 million in funding will be used to complete the installation of Positive-Train Control systems, which automatically slow the train if the operator - or some other malfunction - places it in jeopardy. The National Transportation Safety board has concluded the devices would have prevented the December 2013 crash of a Metro-North train, which was traveling 85 mph on a dangerous curve as it approached a station in the Bronx.

"The MTA received more than $1 billion from this year's budget to help with its capital needs, including funding to provide unprecedented public transportation access to Bronx residents," Cuomo spokeswoman Beth DeFalco said in an emailed statement. "Work on the MTA capital plan is continuing with all stakeholders."

But as MTA board member Polly Trottenberg, the city's transportation commissioner, pointed out during the committee meeting, a loan is not a grant: Eventually, it has to be paid back.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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