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Queens Chronicle

Travelers, unions slam MTA budget

7.5% hike sought for fares, tolls; 0% for organized labor contracts

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Posted: Thursday, August 4, 2011 12:00 pm | Updated: 1:58 pm, Thu Aug 11, 2011.

Unions and advocates for riders and commuters are tearing into the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s proposed budget for 2012.

Unveiled on Wednesday, the plan seeks to continue the massive cost-cutting efforts put in place by outgoing MTA Chairman Jay Walder, and anticipates a balanced budget through 2014 without fare hikes next year.

But it also calls for fare and toll increases of 7.5 percent in both 2013 and 2015.

“By keeping our focus on making every dollar count, this financial plan brings stability back to the MTA’s finances,” Walder said in a statement issued last week. “As a result, we’re able to meet our commitments to avoid service cuts and fare increases next year.”

Walder also said the plan, which will be voted on in December, will advance the acency’s current five year capital improvement plan, which is scheduled to run out of money next year without additional financing.

The plan builds on $525 million in recurring savings from this year, a figure expected to hit $799 million in 2015. Another $748 million is forecast to come from purchasing, procurement and improvements in technological efficiency.

But the plan is also predicated on labor settlements that include three years of flat wages, according to the MTA. “Long-term vulnerabilities include skyrocketing employee and retiree healthcare and benefit plans.”

While the MTA is looking to rebid medical benefits for a better deal, it also must get 63 separate unions to agree to the three-year, zero percent increases. John Samuelsen, who represents 34,000 conductors, track workers and others as president of Transit Workers Union Local 100, said his rank and file are not on board.

“We are not accepting zeros,” Samuelsen said in a statement issued by his office.

MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said there are no numbers yet for fare or toll hikes. He said the proposal right now would be for some combination that would increase revenue by 7.5 percent. And advocates for riders and drivers are as opposed as the unions.

“Our main concern is that we have never had a high regard for ‘modest’ fare increases,” said Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign. “Last time the Metro Card went from $89 to 104 for 30 days, which isn’t modest to my mind” he said.

John Corlett, legislative chairman for AAA New York, said bridge and tunnel tolls already are excessive.

“Roughly speaking, the toll rate is 300 percent of operating costs for those facilities, whereas subways and buses are more like 60 percent,” he said. “The MTA seems to be in a never-ending fiscal crisis. It seems that even in good times they rely on toll money.”

Corlett said toll increases would hit Queens drivers particularly hard.

“If you have to drive north to the Bronx to work, you have no choice,” he said. “And the last time they raised tolls it represents an increase of about 20 percent in 18 months.”

Corlett said the MTA needs to adopt a long-term strategic plan that deals with debt and pensions. Russianoff agrees, saying that capital projects threaten to engulf the MTA’s limited resources.

“Our concern is that this is related to the capital plan and not the operating plan,” he said. “They are embarking on a program of borrowing $7 billon with bonds and they are just backed by the operating budget. Everything would be coming from the same pot of money that is used for service and operations, so that could put pressure on fares and services.”

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