Region's senators look to pressure MTA

Thomas P. Morahan

May 23, 2009

Khurram Saeed


State Sen. Thomas Morahan and four other Republican state senators are creating a task force to come up with ways to make the MTA do a better job of serving Lower Hudson Valley residents.

The task force, which is still being formed, will primarily focus on service improvements by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Rockland, Orange, Putnam and Dutchess counties.

Rockland and Orange taxpayers have historically paid more to the MTA than they have obtained in services. The state Legislature's decision this month to approve a payroll tax to raise nearly $2.3 billion for the MTA in its 12 member counties left state lawmakers from the suburbs fuming.

"The issue now is to come together for a plan on how we're going to address the MTA outrage that was perpetrated on the suburbs," said Morahan, a Republican from New City who represents all of Rockland and parts of Orange County.

A 2005 MTA analysis found that Rockland paid $88.2 million in fares, taxes and fees but got back $46.5 million, a gap of nearly $42 million. Orange County's gap was nearly $32 million.

In the past, MTA officials have acknowledged the gap but said Rockland residents still benefit from being part of the agency because they use Metro-North Railroad, New York City subways and buses, and bridges and tunnels.

On May 6, state lawmakers approved a payroll tax that will force employers - businesses, nonprofits, governments and schools - in the 12 MTA counties to pay 34 cents for every $100 of payroll in order to keep fares and tolls lower and prevent service cuts. The move could cost Rockland employers $18.5 million a year.

In response, the Rockland Legislature unanimously passed a bill that called on the state to give it the option to withdraw from the MTA.

County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef has said that he does not plan to sign the bill until further study has been completed.

State Sen. Bill Larkin, R-Cornwall-on-Hudson, one of the task force creators, called the tax "unfair, unreasonable and unequally distributed."

"This task force will give the Hudson Valley the voice to be heard in New York City and bring our transit needs into the open for discussion and future action," Larkin said in a statement. "If they expect businesses to pay for services that the vast majority don't use, they had better make room at the table to hear our concerns."

The other state senators involved in creating the task force are John Bonacic, R-Mount Hope; Vincent Leibell, R-Patterson; and Stephen Saland, R-Poughkeepsie.

Morahan said he wanted to attract leaders from the private and public sector, commuters and business development officials.

Local MTA representatives also will be invited to participate. The goal isn't to develop a "laundry list of requests," Morahan said, but come up with key, prioritized areas where changes can be made.

The goal is to have a plan ready for the Legislature's next session, which starts in January.

"Nothing is going to happen right away," Morahan said yesterday. "We can't knee-jerk this."

Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee, D-Suffern, said working with the MTA to find a solution was an issue that "crosses all party lines."

She strongly supports mass transit for the region, but said the MTA had to do a better job of becoming as a regional service.

The law that brought the payroll tax also contained provisions for greater transparency of the MTA, including a forensic audit.

Jaffee said there has been a "lack of trust" about the MTA. "They have to be held accountable," Jaffee said. "This is not a new problem. This has been going on for years and years."