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Commentary By Nicole Gelinas

Blame Game

Alabny Eyes MTA Scapegoats

SO after months of stalling, Albany has reportedly decided that the problem with the state-controlled Metropolitan Transportation Authority is its management. If so, it's a fatal misreading by Gov. Paterson - and New Yorkers should start to worry fiercely about the subways and the rest of our transit infrastructure.

The latest talk in Albany is that the governor and Legislature will finally come up with some money to bail the MTA out of its dangerous budget deficit ($1.5 billion or more), averting the worst of the service cuts and fare hikes now set for the spring.

But the price could be change at the top: MTA chief Elliot Sander could be out.

This is simply bizarre. By any fair reading, the MTA's woes aren't current management's fault. The authority's biggest problem is the massive amounts of debt it took on years ago, in the Pataki era. Politicos, including then-Executive Director Marc Shaw, forced that debt to bloat knowing full well that it would blow up after they had left.

At the time, everyone - from liberal transit advocates to conservative fiscal watchdogs - warned unanimously that this debt was a disaster scheduled to blow up around . . . now. Yet the MTA willfully hurt itself, its riders and the city to keep the pols happy.

In fact, current management has been making a good effort to cut back costs to pay all of that debt without hurting customers too much - making the back office take twice its proportional fair share of cuts, for example.

And the MTA, over the last two years, has credibly started long-overdue savings reforms, like merging back offices that were the legacy of the separate transit systems New York used to have before creating the MTA - four decades ago.

Yes, there's much more to do - but this is the first serious start.

This, while struggling with how to deal with elected officials' more recent bad ideas - like the Fulton Street boondoggle downtown, always fated to cost far more than the pols had promised.

In fact, where the MTA itself arguably missed a chance most recently was in not taking advantage of union weakness to get big savings on pensions and future benefits. That's a big deal - although, to be fair, progress there probably would've just gotten Sander et al fired by Albany already.

So now what?

If the talk is true, the immediate danger for the city is that Albany won't be able to find someone to head the MTA with any real "experience" - because people with Pataki-era experience are those most responsible for commiting malpractice on the MTA via that horrible debt albatross. (Of course, Albany could hire these people back - but that would be worse than no experience.)

The longer-term - and graver - danger is that part of the reason that Paterson and the Legislature may force Sander out is that they just want someone to be much quieter about the region's biggest risk: not fare hikes, but the MTA's unfunded capital plan.

This $30 billion, five-year plan is needed to keep the MTA infrastructure in half-decent shape and continue its long-overdue expansion plans.

Indeed, for Albany's craven purposes, the MTA's current leadership may have been way too loud about this problem - explaining fairly effectively to New Yorkers what continued negligence could do to the city's infrastructure. No pol wants the public to understand that neglecting transit (in favor of louder and more lucrative education and Medicaid interests) has a real cost.

Of course, Albany may hold any MTA bailout hostage - demanding the agency shut up about these dangers. The most efficient way to run that blackmail scheme would be to make the bailout only a one-shot subsidy: enough cash to postpone politically unpopular fare hikes, while forcing the agency to go back to Albany to beg for more funds next year.

A real bailout, by contrast, would give the MTA a permanent new source of income to help it retain its (already fragile) independence.

The bottom line is that New York will never get the modern transit it needs unless some governor (likely pressured by a mayor) makes it clear to the public that it's a huge priority for him - and then gives someone like Sander the years, resources and reasonable, accountable independence to do the job.

Such a political commitment would be like what Mayor Bloomberg has done with education - giving Schools Chancellor Joel Klein the resources and freedom that the mayor thinks are needed to do the job.

Bloomberg may or may not be successful here - but he at least has staked it out as important enough to risk his reputation and the city's resources.

No one has done this with transit. Yet it's critically needed, if we're to build the public infrastructure that the city needs to attract and maintain an entrepreneurial middle class (and so leave us a stronger future after Wall Street).

Until that happens with transit, what we have now - reasonable competence within the MTA, against a backdrop of terrifying political dysfunction - is, sadly, the best we can hope for.

And even that may be in danger now.

This piece originally appeared in New York Post

This piece originally appeared in New York Post