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MTA promises reforms as it pleads for new revenue sources

Details on Gov. Cuomo's congestion pricing proposal are still sparse just a month and half before the state budget is due.

MTA executives pleaded with the State Senate Tuesday

MTA executives pleaded with the State Senate Tuesday for badly needed new revenue as lawmakers hash out potential funding options. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

The MTA needs money — and it's promising to change its wasteful ways to get it.

Executives from the authority went hat in hand to the State Senate Tuesday to ask for badly needed new revenue as lawmakers hash out potential funding options, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s congestion pricing budget proposal for Manhattan’s central business district.

With just a month and a half before the state budget is due on April 1, details on support for the governor’s proposal and specifics on how exactly it would be implemented are sparse.

“Depending on who you speak with … they may have a different take, a different concept of what congestion pricing actually looks like; how it will work and how it will benefit their respective communities where they serve,” said State Sen. Timothy Kennedy, of Buffalo, who chairs the Transportation Committee.

Kennedy, who pledged more hearings and greater oversight in the coming months, spoke with reporters during the committee's first oversight hearing of the MTA in five years. Authority executives pleaded their case for new funding, and laid out how they would reform an authority grappling with service and financial crises. 

In addition to other savings measures, MTA Managing Director Ronnie Hakim said the authority has begun working on "large-scale organization reform" — plans to consolidate various agency silos that separately oversee operations of service.

“We know we need to be accountable for our performance and the highest levels of management, and most importantly we must reform the MTA to improve service for our customers,” Hakim said.

Without new revenue from congestion pricing and elsewhere, Hakim perpetuated warnings from Cuomo and the authority of a 1970s-style service decline and potentially massive new fare hikes, service cuts and labor reductions.

“We’re clearly at historic crossroads where desperately needed funding must be secured to ensure the successful future for mass transit in New York,” Hakim said.

Cuomo’s proposal, which MTA president Pat Foye referred to as a “congestion pricing regime,” outlines a broad plan to institute tolls beginning in 2021 for private vehicles entering Manhattan below 60th Street. The plan would need to net $1 billion annually for the MTA — but exact tolling rates, and how the state would adjust tolls depending on the time of day, are still unclear.

On Friday Cuomo proposed through budget amendments a new six-person “expert MTA oversight panel” that would, in addition to other weighty responsibilities, hash out those specifics by the end of 2020. The group would also approve the MTA’s reform plans as well as its operation and capital budgets.

There aren’t many details on that panel, either. It’s not even clear who would appoint its members or how long the panel would exist. The government watchdog group Reinvent Albany has pointed out that the panel would essentially strip the MTA board of several of its key responsibilities.

“This is not the time to make major changes to redistribute power over the MTA’s governance structure, as there are too many stakeholders at risk,” said Rachael Fauss, Reinvent Albany, in her written testimony opposing the panel’s creation.

Queens State Sen. Leroy Comrie, who had been critical of congestion pricing, said he would need to know who is on the expert panel and assurance as to how exactly the MTA would improve outer-borough transit service before a plan was implemented.

“My understanding is we’re going to be voting on the authorization [of congestion pricing] but not the implementation” Comrie said. “So we can get some things in place and we can get some guarantees in place; we can look at other financing as well because this is really about financing to make sure the MTA can do the capital project work that it needs to do. So we need to look at that holistically.”

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