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Albany Lacks Leadership on Transit as Time Runs Out on MTA Capital Funding

The MTA is still staring down a $10 billion hole in its capital plan, and the consequences of that deficit continue to roll closer. Unless money is found by the end of the year, transit expansions like the Second Avenue Subway will slow down and important maintenance will be left undone. But despite the approaching deadline, no one in Albany seems willing to step up and even begin to tackle the issue.

Governor Cuomo hasn't shown much interest in dealing with the MTA's capital deficit. During a legislative hearing on the transportation budget yesterday, MTA Chairman Jay Walder revealed that while he has met with the governor's staff, "I have not had conversations as to avenues of funding for the capital program."

Any new revenue source for the MTA would be a major political fight. If the governor's office hasn't even started speaking with the MTA about the issue, movement in the near future seems unlikely.

While the governor seems to be whistling past the graveyard, the State Senate continues to actively fight to take money away from transit. The $1.4 billion payroll mobility tax remains under threat, with Majority Leader Dean Skelos strenuously opposed, a number of Senate Republicans elected on anti-payroll tax platforms and the four breakaway Senate Democrats willing to axe the tax as well.

In a speech at a Crain's Breakfast Forum two weeks ago, Skelos once again expressed his desire to eliminate the payroll tax, though he now says that the MTA should be "made whole" if that revenue is removed. That's progress for Skelos, but it's not enough. Whatever revenue would be used to replace $1.4 billion from the payroll tax is revenue that can't be used to fund the capital plan. As Walder told the legislature yesterday, “I don’t foresee a plan in any time frame in which you can phase out the payroll tax.”

Then there's the Assembly, where you can find glimmers of hope if you're a glass-half-full type. Brooklyn rep James Brennan has taken over from Richard Brodsky as the head of the Committee on Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions, which has jurisdiction over the MTA. In an interview with The Bond Buyer, Brennan described himself as "a devoted supporter of mass transit."

Speaker Sheldon Silver's decision to appoint Brennan as authorities committee chair is grounds for optimism about support for transit in that chamber. While Brodsky led the fight against congestion pricing, Brennan was a congestion pricing supporter. And while Brennan didn't take responsibility for transit funding himself (“The MTA’s got major capital budget shortfalls going forward which we’re probably not going to deal with right now”), he rightly attributed responsibility to the state government rather than bash the MTA.

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