Debate Breaks Out at Typically Tame MTA Board Meeting

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority board was about to vote on the $12.7 billion in its 2012 budget Wednesday when member Allen Capelli spoke up and ground the proceedings to a halt. The moment was unusual because the board traditionally works out its differences behind closed doors, making its public sessions a kind of fait accompli machine.

Capelli proposed an amendment to the budget that would have the MTA spend $20 million to reverse some of last year’s drastic cuts to bus, train and subway service.

Board member Charles Moerdler backed him up, saying it would show riders they could expect more from the MTA besides fare hikes “If you care about public mass transit, put up or shut up,” Moerdler said before comparing the amendment to apple pie and motherhood. “You cannot vote against it.”

But budget director Robert Foran opposed the proposal, saying next year’s books were balanced on cuts to overhead that have yet to be identified.

“I don’t know where we’re going to get the $35 million that I just said we’re going to cut,” Foran said. “I don’t know where I’ll get this $20 million.”

He said the $35 million in cuts combined with $33 million in emergency reserves will be needed to plug an expected $87 million drop in revenues from the MTA’s portion of a state payroll tax.

Foran noted projections that show a 30 to 40 percent drop in Wall Street bonuses this year, which provide a big slice of the payroll tax pie. “You’re putting a 20 million dollar burden on us,” he said to Capelli and Moerdler, “when we’re already trying to figure out what are we going to do when the whole payroll economy comes down.”

Joe Lhota, the NY MTA’s new executive director, also spoke against the amendment, describing it as a “dangerous proposal.”

Andrew Albert disagreed, calling a budget without at least some restored service “a budget balanced on the backs of riders.” He said some buses, trains and subways needed to run as often as they did before last year’s cuts.  “We need to bring back the frequency so people are not packed in like animals,” he said.

The debate raged a good half hour before a vote was called. The amendment lost 6 to 4. The rest of the 2012 budget, which includes no fare hikes or service cuts, was passed.

Lhota is expected to go before the State Senate next month for confirmation as chairman of the board. Should he gain the position, it will be interesting to see whether such spirited discussions continue to break out during the MTA’s public sessions.