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John Liu Wants Federal Bailout for MTA, Calls Bridge Tolls a “Distraction”

12:29 PM EST on November 14, 2008

While Washington is bailing out banks and carmakers (maybe), City Council Member John Liu thinks an allocation to the MTA is in order.

On WNYC's "The Brian Lehrer Show" Tuesday, Liu said an infusion of cash from city, state or federal coffers is the best hope for putting the transit system on solid ground, and again dismissed talk of raising revenue from adding tolls to East River bridges. Here are some of the transportation committee chair's comments:

"It may still be a pipe dream at this point, but we have to talk about going to the federal government for assistance, because the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, it will have an impact on the regional economy if it fails. And the kind of deficit that we're talking about, over a billion dollars, that is nothing to sneeze at. And that is just for next year."

"I don't think you can raise fares, or cut services, or even impose new tolls to the point of being able to get out of this budget deficit. It's a structural deficit that is so significant that some external source is required, whether it be the city paying into it, or a combination of city and state paying for it, or the federal government coming up with dollars to shore up the MTA finances."

"It would be very difficult to toll the East River bridges. It's been bandied about for nearly a hundred years. It's never gone over well. I think it's right now just a distraction from getting at the real solution."

"Congestion pricing was far more comprehensive. Anybody who was entering a certain area, no matter how they were getting in, was going to pay the fee. And that fee was going to be invested in new mass transit resources, not simply to plug an MTA deficit. That's a big distinction here."

"If you look at the structural deficit right now, a lot of it was a result of the state pulling out its support for capital projects and having the MTA foot the bill. If the federal government was able to include New York City, the New York metropolitan area and the MTA as part of its infrastructure investments, then it would free up a great deal of money that otherwise would be used to service debt in the coming years. That would not help us immediately with the budget deficit but it certainly would help us with the out years where the deficit is projected to be far greater."

Liu isn't the only New York lawmaker asking for aid, as Senator Chuck Schumer has also called on the incoming Obama administration for help "from Broadway to Babylon to Buffalo."

While no one sees bridge tolls as a cure-all for the MTA's problems, are they, as Liu says, a "distraction"? Or are such measures -- which are expected to be part of the upcoming Ravitch Commission report -- necessary for the agency's long-term viability, rather than relying on the "pipe dream" of federal aid?

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