NY: Area Lawmakers Grill State Transportation Commissioner Over NFTA Funding

Jan. 30--ALBANY -- The Cuomo administration's transportation commissioner Thursday defended the governor's state aid to the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

Transit officials and lawmakers say the aid falls far short of the need. The local transit agency does not receive a fair share compared to other transit agencies around the state, they add.

"NFTA continues to be short-changed," said Assemblyman Ray Walter, an Erie County Republican, addressing Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald during a budget hearing in Albany.

Walter checked off how NFTA state aid is considerably below other transit agencies, even though it is the only upstate system with a subway line.

Asked by Walker to explain the funding inequities, McDonald responded, "I'm not going to do that right now."

She offered to meet with the lawmaker in private at another time to review the financial numbers.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed a 1.35 percent increase in state aid to the NFTA, below the 5 percent increase sought by the agency and less than the overall 2 percent increase to all transit authorities in the state.

Critics have said the funding shortfall could put pressure the agency into further service cutbacks or fare increases.

An Assembly fiscal analysis of the governor's budget plan says Cuomo has proposed $4.8 billion for all 130 transit agencies in New York, a $93 million increase. About $4.35 billion would go to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the transit agency for New York City and Long Island. That represents an increase of 2 percent from its current fiscal year funding by the state.

A number of other downstate transit systems, including those in Westchester and Rockland counties, would also get 2 percent increases, while transit agencies in Albany, Syracuse and Rochester would get the 1.3 percent increase under Cuomo's funding plan.

The governor's plan proposes $45.53 million to the NFTA for the 2014 fiscal year, up from $44.93 million this year.

While NFTA board members recently sharply criticized Cuomo's funding plan, NFTA Chairman Howard Zemsky, a close political ally of the governor, did not join in the rebuke and suggested the agency now has to look at its various transportation programs in Erie and Niagara counties and possibly put off some scheduled capital programs.

"It's a matter of fairness," Walter told McDonald during the hearing this morning.

He said the NFTA gets $3.34 per rider mile in state support compared to $4.50 for the Rochester transit system and $5.76 per rider mile in Syracuse.

Walter cited a 2013 Federal Transit Administration report that noted the state's failure to adequately fund NFTA operations threatens significant service cutbacks. He said the federal report credited the NFTA for managing its operations efficiently.

"What are we doing to improve the financial assistance going to the NFTA?" he asked McDonald.

McDonald said her office is in conversations with the NFTA and federal transit agency.

"But we think the $600,000 the governor has included in this budget is a significant increase," she told Walter of the proposed state aid hike for the NFTA.

Sen. Timothy Kennedy, a South Buffalo Democrat, said the NFTA is underfunded by $8 million when compared to counterpart transit agencies across the state.

Kennedy said the state's funding formula lacks fairness because it does not take into account that the NFTA operates a light rail system unlike other transit systems beyond the MTA.

When asked if the formula should change to account for the light rail system, McDonald said, "It's much better to stay exactly where we are."

McDonald said she is not aware of the specific financial issues surrounding the NFTA but expressed willingness to look at the numbers and meet with lawmakers.

Kennedy said the administration also failed to propose in its budget proposal the capital funding the NFTA needs to help pay for refurbishing its aging light rail cars. He raised concerns that NFTA might have to reduce routes, which would hamper riders trying to get to jobs and schools.

"We obviously have to do better than that," Kennedy said of the proposed transit funding plan.

Carm Basile, president of the New York Public Transit Association, which represents upstate and downstate transportation authorities, said growth in state assistance to upstate transit agencies has been anemic in the past three years while ridership across all systems has been growing. The result, he and other transit officials said, is service cutbacks or being unable to provide new routes to track job growth into some upstate metropolitan areas.

"It just doesn't work," Basile said of a state transit funding model that he said has been in place for 30 years. His group wants a dedicated funding stream -- such as a portion of the state's sales tax revenues -- earmarked for transit agencies so the authorities can better plan their finances from year to year.

Also appearing at the all-day transportation funding hearing was Thomas Madison, the executive director of the state Thruway Authority. He said the agency plans no toll hikes on the 570-mile highway system in 2014 -- but he was silent about possible toll hikes beyond that.

There has been some chatter in Albany that the Thruway Authority may be quietly considering a major toll increase after this year's statewide elections are over as a way to help pay for a $3.9 billion project to build a new Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson River between Rockland and Westchester counties.

Madison said no such system-wide toll increase is planned to help pay for that project. A year into the project, though, the Thruway Authority has yet to release a financial plan to say how that project will be funded. "We do not have a complete financing plan for the bridge," Madison told lawmakers, saying the agency is awaiting the selection of a task force to come up with ideas for how to fully fund the bridge.

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