Once upon a time, Alan Hevesi, then the comptroller of New York State, fired a complaint at the MTA that the agency had been maintaining two sets of books. Claiming that the MTA hid $500 million in order to justify a fare hike, Hevesi leveled this charge at a time public sentiment toward the MTA was at a low, and it stuck. The MTA’s bookkeeping had been sloppy, but not illegally so. A judge eventually found no wrong-doing or evidence to back Hevesi’s claim, and the comptroller himself wound up in jail for his own fiscal improprieties.
Still, the idea that the MTA has two sets of books has been an enduring and popular myth. The public can easily latch onto it because they don’t feel the MTA is own their side, and politicians use it to curry favor with disgruntled voters. It came up in both 2009 and 2010, and now that a potential mayoral candidate is riding the coattails of his time with the MTA, in essence, it is resurfacing again this year.
The latest issue comes from — you guessed it — Staten Island, and it involves Senator Andrew Lanza and Representative Nicole Malliotakis. When we last ran across these two, they had recently been railing against better bus service after bemoaning the lack of transit options for Staten Islanders. Malliotakis seemed awfully concerned with a theoretical group of senior citizen drivers who would find themselves in bus lanes and panic over receiving a ticket.
Anyway, after Joe Lhota last week in a debate called the MTA “most transparent governmental organization,” Lanza and Malliotakis responded in turn. Judy Randall from the Staten Island Advance has the story:
The two lawmakers are backing Lhota rival John Catsimatidis, who didn’t appear to take umbrage at the comment during the debate, but joined them in denouncing it in a joint statement. “When I think of the MTA, many descriptions pop into my head,” Catsimatidis said. “Transparent is not one of them.”
“Joe Lhota’s statement defending the MTA is a gross untruth,” said Lanza (R-Staten Island), adding that the agency fought to defeat legislation he authored which would have required it to undergo an independent audit. “That action alone certainly undermines Joe Lhota’s laughable claim that the MTA is the most transparent agency in the USA.”
Meanwhile, Ms. Malliotakis (R-East Shore/Brooklyn) took exception with the agency’s finances. “The MTA has a $250 million surplus from the tolls it collects from the bridge,” she said. “Under Lhota’s watch, the MTA reached a debt of $40 billion. I, for one, would like to know where that money is being spent.”
Lhota responed with a statement concerning his desire to remove the MTA bridges from state control, but put that zany idea aside for now. The real issue is one of accountability and transparency. The MTA is very transparent. It posts all of its budget materials and board materials on its website as soon as these materials are available for public consumption, and anyone with a little bit of time, energy and focus can wade through them to develop a picture of the MTA’s finances. If Malliotakis, for one, would like to know where the money is being spent, she should just look for herself.
The real issue — and it’s always an issue politicians are loath to explore — concerns not how the MTA spends money but how much they’re spending and on what. It’s great the MTA has become so transparent in light of where they used to be with budget information; it’s no so great that so much money is tied up in debt payments and pension and benefits obligations. It’s shocking that the MTA is spending nearly a $1 billion per new station for the Second Ave. Subway and is constructing the world’s most expensive transit projects the city over.
At a certain point, someone in Albany has to take some responsibility for understanding and appreciating the fiscal mess the MTA has found itself in. It’s not a mess the agency is trying to hide, and it’s one out there for everyone to see without the need to subpoena, FOIA or forensically audit the agency. It’s under our noses, but our politicians would rather take pot shots at the agency than attempt to solve the problems. That’s not government at its finest.