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Hike in city sales tax may fund MTA projects

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Nothing is certain yet, but the state Legislature's proposed budget contains a provision for raising sales taxes in New York City and environs with the proceeds going to the transit agency.The legislators agreed Monday night on a 0.125 percent hike in the sales tax as they moved toward passing a budget on time by the April 1 deadline for the first time in 21 years. It was not known whether Gov. George Pataki would exercise his veto power over the sales tax increase, which would partially offset a planned decrease in the city's 8.625 sales tax and leave it at 8.375 percent.How much financial help the MTA ends up getting would also depend on the Transportation Bond Act, a referendum scheduled for the fall. It would authorize the state to borrow $2.9 billion for transit in New York City and elsewhere in the state. The MTA had requested $8 billion for such expansion projects as the Second Avenue Subway, the East Side Access to bring Long Island Rail Road trains into Grand Central Terminal and the Lower Manhattan-John F. Kennedy International Airport high speed rail line. But legislators pared the figure for expansion to $2.5 billion. The MTA, denied any money for capital programs in recent years by Pataki and thus forced to borrow billions with resulting ruinous interest, asked for $16.4 billion for maintenance of the subway system along with money to buy new subway cars, but probably will receive somewhat more than $15 billion.Meanwhile, the New York City Transit Authority, the division of the MTA that operates buses and subways, gave approval Tuesday to the purchase of hybrid electric buses rather than buses that burn compressed natural gas, which environmental activists favor. The decision still requires MTA board approval.Transit Authority President Lawrence Reuter, under heat from elected officials and the public after several days of mid-month subway disruptions that inconvenienced hundreds of thousands of commuters, spoke in detail about what caused each incident and what was done to fix the problem. For instance, the disruption of the No. 2, 4, 5 and 6 lines when smoke filled a tunnel after a fire in a Brooklyn terminal, was the result of "poor housekeeping" by a track repair and maintenance crew, he said. The work gang members, which he said had failed to clean up debris after finishing the job, had been disciplined.Turning to complaints of increasing delays in the subways, Reuter said most resulted from maintenance work. He said if performing proper maintenance caused a moderate delay, "we feel it is a small price for promoting safety.""I want to make clear that these delays are not the result of any deferred maintenance," Reuter said.Mayor Michael Bloomberg, meanwhile, signed legislation to extend the operating authority of New York Bus Service, one of the seven private bus lines scheduled to be taken over by the MTA, by nearly six months because of ongoing negotiations over the use of a bus depot in College Point.New York Bus had been scheduled to be taken over March 26 but now is to be absorbed by the MTA "no later than Sept. 15, 2005." Liberty Lines and Queens Surface bus lines have already been taken over. All seven lines originally were to have been under the MTA by April 30.Reach contributing writer Philip Newman by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300 Ext. 136.

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