MTA turns to budget reserves to fund subway action plan amid board concerns

MTA chairman Joseph Lhota has begun dipping into budget reserves to pay for his subway action plan and he’s calling once more for Mayor Bill de Blasio to kick in funding for it.

“We will continue to ask and we’ll do our very best to try to convince [the mayor],” Lhota said at an MTA board meeting Wednesday, later adding that “the people who are on the subway system are in fact his constituents. And I would have thought that he would have cared as much as others would have cared about making sure the system got back to a better state of reliability.”

Lhota has requested the city and state split the cost of his $836 million plan, which relies heavily on the hiring of 2,700 new subway workers to reduce the state-run system’s soaring number of delays and service failures. While Gov. Andrew Cuomo has agreed to foot half the bill, Mayor Bill de Blasio has repeatedly declined, citing the state’s mismanagement of MTA funds.

“Try as they might, city riders won’t allow the State and the MTA to pull the wool over their eyes,” said mayoral spokesman Austin Finan in a statement. “Implementing half the plan isn’t an option. If Chairman Lhota needs the money to fund his plan, he should ask the State to return the nearly half-billion dollars it swiped from the authority he now oversees. It’s really that simple.”

With budget reserves, the MTA has already hired about 300 new workers and implemented various infrastructure upgrades. It’s replaced tens of thousands of track components, sealed 185 leaks and cleared more than 120,000 pounds of debris from the Eighth Avenue line, according to Lhota. The agency has also reduced the number of train cars unavailable for service by 17 percent, the chairman said.

“We run 8,500 trains every single day and it’s important we have as many train cars up as possible,” Lhota said.

This spending will come to a head late this year or early next year, when the agency will need new revenue to continue the action plan, according to Lhota. The chairman plans to present the agency’s board with a prioritized list of efforts in his plan next month.

At the same time, he’ll attempt to allay the MTA board’s members. Several have worried about transparency and budgeting around the action plan, which was enabled this summer when Cuomo declared a “state of emergency” for the agency. Board member James Vitiello on Wednesday questioned the legality of the state declaration and whether it would create more financial issues for the agency.

“The order, when unaccompanied by any actual cash payment … it seems to address the problem by exacerbating the problem — that is to say we can spend more money we don’t have even faster,” said Vitiello, who added that he loses sleep worrying about the MTA’s financial footing. The agency entered 2017 with about $35 billion in outstanding debt.

The board has faced more scrutiny as of late with good government groups like Reinvent Albany challenging the board’s approvals process.

“My biggest concern is actions advancing under the mandate of expediency that then become opaque,” said board member Veronica Vanterpool to Lhota. “We’re asking you to do your best to make sure that we as a board are really representing the public and are not taking actions, again, under this mandate of expediency.”

Lhota assured the agency wouldn’t “spend any more money or hire anyone that’s outside the existing budget that was approved by this board.” The hundreds of recently hired workers were already accounted for, he said, promising the board a detailed look at the next meeting into what the MTA spent through Cuomo’s state of emergency order.

“I will tell you the body today is quite deliberative. The body today wants lots of information and I’m going to make sure they get that information. … It’s a good thing,” Lhota continued. “The burden’s going to be on me; the burden’s going to be on management to be able to provide them as much information as they need.”

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