Boro watchdogs question MTA’s number crunchers

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Queens activists have expressed skepticism over the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s reported budget gap in light of an audit suggesting the MTA grossly overstated the severity of its financial plight.

The Independent Budget Office, a non-partisan city agency, audited the MTA’s books and announced last week the transit agency’s deficit over the next two years amounts to $951 million — not $2.8 billion the MTA has been reporting in saying a subway and bus fare increase was imperative.

Since the Independent Budget Office report, City Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing), the Queens Civic Council and the Straphangers Campaign have cited the disparity and urged transit officials to hold the line on a fare increase.

MTA officials did not dispute the independent agency’s report, which used the MTA’s own figures in analyzing the transit agency’s financial projections. But both MTA officials and Doug Turetsky, a spokesman for the Independent Budget Office, said the budget gap reported by the MTA did not “reflect some of the cost-cutting and debt-saving measures” in the MTA plan.

At a public hearing over which he presided Friday, Liu questioned the MTA over its budget numbers.

“It’s clear that New Yorkers need clear and accurate representations by the MTA and strong accountabi­lity,” said Liu, chairman of the Council’s Transportation Committee.

“It isn’t easy for anybody to look at these numbers, and I would have to question the transparency of this agency,” Liu told Katherine Lapp, the MTA executive director, who testified at the hearing at the request of Liu.

Tina Chan, Queens Civic Congress vice president and chairman, told the hearing the MTA had failed to make a case for a fare increase.

“Unfortunat­ely, too many both at this public authority and in higher office as well as some pundits and commentators gloss over changes in finances made over the last few years that further shift the burden of funding many initiatives always funded by state, federal and city tax levy on those who use the system.”

Gene Russianoff, attorney for the transit watchdog agency Straphangers Campaign, said the MTA owed public transit patrons an explanation for the discrepancy in budget figures. The Straphangers has led a campaign against any fare hike.

Even though the Independent Budget Office audit showed a considerably lower budget gap than the MTA had reported, the MTA Web site as of Monday was still proclaiming the budget gap figure of $2.8 billion to headline its fare hike alternatives, which include possibilities of a new fare of $1.75 or $2 along with fare increases on commuter trains as well as 50-cent increases on bridges and tunnels.

The MTA will hold hearings in every borough and in Westchester County and Long Island prior to any fare increase, including one at 6 p.m. Feb. 19 in Borough Hall (Central Jury Room, basement) in Kew Gardens.

Reach contributing writer Philip Newman by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 136.

Updated 10:26 am, October 12, 2011
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