The New York state comptroller's office has targeted state and local public authorities, including the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, over financial issues and lack of transparency. State and local governments have come to rely on these authorities to plug budget gaps, but the public inevitably will be forced to pay higher taxes and tolls, according to Thomas DiNapoli, comptroller, who issued two critical reports released in early March.

The state's 1,169 public authorities—which also include the Dormitory Authority, the Empire State Development Corp. and the New York State Thruway Authority—have amassed nearly $250 billion in debt in the latest reported fiscal year, DiNapoli said in a March 5 report. These authorities "operate in the shadows with too little accountability to the public," DiNapoli said.

Meanwhile, MTA is $4.4 billion over its original budget and 10 years behind schedule on the East Side Access subway project, DiNapli said in a March 6 report.

The transit authority declined comment on either report.

Neither report is surprising, says Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. She says infrastructure work is greatly needed, but several factors hinder progress, including rapid turnover in the MTA front office and lawmakers who are disingenuous about project timelines and costs.

"The voters haven't approved any of this debt," Gelinas says. "But it's the taxpayers who are on the hook to bail out these authorities."

However, Denise Richardson, General Contractors Association of New York managing director, says one of the reasons that MTA projects are "consistently perceived" as being over budget is because budgets are not adjusted to account for project changes as they arise.

The $250-billion debt issue reflects several capital programs that were financed using debt, which shows that "we are not willling to raise fares or taxes or find other revenue sources to pay for them," Richardson says.