The hearing, which was held at the Sheraton LaGuardia East Hotel, marks the beginning of the public discourse over the groups proposed 2009 budget that would increase fares in every division of the MTA and simultaneously dramatically cut train service to parts of Brooklyn and Queens.
According to the MTA, the increases in fare and reductions in service are needed to close an ever-widening budget gap that brought on last year’s fare hike. According to MTA representatives, the faltering New York City economy is directly to blame for their budgetary crisis, as more and more of the agencies funding has become dependent on taxes from real estate transactions, a well that has dried up over the last nine months.
The MTA has said that they would need to increase fares by 23 percent in order to close the budget gap without cutting service.
The MTA’s Board of Executives put their support behind the recommendations of the Ravitch Commission, which proposed creating a new payroll tax in New York State and turn authority of the East River bridges over to the MTA in order to raise enough money to close the gap.
State legislative bodies have so far appeared unwilling to consider the Ravitch Commisison’s proposal, and so the MTA is proceeding with the process of putting forward a budget that includes fare increases and service cuts, a process that begins with public hearings.
“The MTA, with federal, state, and city assistance, must end the shifting in financing transit projects to the fare box,” said Kathy Masi, on behalf of the Queens Civic Congress. “[We question] any need for hikes, when creditable resources exist to support MTA operations and projects.”
Councilwoman Helen Sears was perhaps the most understanding of the MTA’s situation, although she still described their proposal as unnecessarily extreme.
“As budget negotiator for Queens, I am well aware of the dire fiscal straits we are in,” she said. “Some fare increases are unavoidable, but a nearly 25 percent increase is unnecessarily severe.”
Borough President Helen Marshall spoke against tolls for the East River bridges, citing the lack of appropriate mass transit for many neighborhoods throughout Queens.
“For the thousands of Queens residents, public transportation is not an option,” she testified. “I believe that we must not punish those who have been ignored by government’s failure to provide meaningful mass transit options. Our subway system does not serve the entire borough, and bus service and the all-too-infrequent Long Island Railroad are the only other options.”
“Instead of increasing fees, the MTA should focus its efforts to cut administrative costs and reform its internal organizational and managerial structure,” said Councilman Tony Avella. “The MTA should also develop alternative funding sources instead of relying on the hard-earned dollars of low- to middle-income families.”
The councilman also renewed his calls for the control of the MTA to be transferred to the city.
The decision to hold the hearing on Inauguration Day ruffled a few feathers as well.
“The decision to hold this hearing on Inauguration Day is questionable, considering how many New Yorkers who ride the subways and buses that might want to air their concerns about the proposed subway cuts are away in the nation’s capitol for the festivities,” said State Senator Toby Stavisky.