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Commentary By Nicole Gelinas

The MTA Mess

Mayor Bloomberg is a co- chief of the national "building America's future" coalition, devoted to winning $1.6 trillion for roads, bridges, tunnels and the like. So it's beyond strange that he's stood by as the agency that runs Gotham's most important physical asset, the subways, falls into its deepest fiscal and operating crisis in a generation.

Now, the mayor must see that his constituents don't suffer— by making sure that the authority cuts fat, not meat, out of its budget.

Sure, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is controlled by the state, and largely unaccountable—but the mayor didn't control the public schools, either, until he decided that system was important enough to New Yorkers that somebody should try to fix it. And somebody who cares about New York City's future needs to fix the MTA.

MTA chief Lee Sander yesterday admitted the grim news: The agency is in deep trouble: It faces a half-billion-dollar gap in the operating budget for the coming fiscal year and a $1.5 billion gap in the next. (And don't even ask about the years after that.) Fare and toll hikes are inevitable—but even after that, a scary gap remains.

Fuel will cost the MTA an extra $200 million over the rest of this year and next. Meanwhile, its tax revenues (largely from real estate) are down by half a billion dollars, more than the MTA had expected (how surprising).

Perhaps worse: The authority has no good ideas about how to fund its long-term capital plan to ensure that assets don't deteriorate. In fact, it's making that dilemma worse, by taking money it would have put toward building and maintenance projects into the operating budget instead—a version of the trick that got New York City in so much trouble in the 1970s.

There's nothing wrong with hiking fares to match rising costs—but the MTA has made that job harder for itself. Last year, it succumbed to then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer's shameless politicization of the fare-hike process by approving an increase that was less than what the authority already knew it needed.

So now it has to raise fares more than it would have, and more quickly—probably by 8 percent instead of 5 percent by next year, and even more after that. New Yorkers, squeezed even harder by increasing costs for everything else, are likely to complain even louder than they did before.

Plus, at some price, people will cut back on rides—reducing the money the MTA hopes to make.

Anyway, it's not OK for riders to pay more for service that will be deteriorating—and that's our likely future, unless the mayor protects his voters' quality of life.

Bloomberg's best and brightest should do the boring work of making sure that the MTA beefs up its pledge to find savings by streamlining inefficient white-collar and blue-collar work alike, so that actual customer service doesn't fall even further behind than it is.

The MTA's plan to cut 1.5 percent of planned spending each year isn't enough in an agency whose back-office bloat was made infamous in a state comptroller's report a few years back. Subway riders can't hope the MTA will do this well without supervision, especially since the comptroller noted last year that "the MTA realized less than half of its planned cost-reduction target, which was modest from the outset."

This won't be exciting—but Bloomberg understands how important mass transit is. A few months ago, he returned from an Asia trip full of tales of the breathtakingly modern and efficient mass-transit and high-speed-rail systems he'd seen.

Plus, making sure that the MTA doesn't get any worse is the least the mayor can do now. During some of the best years of the city's economy, he just let the MTA keep bumbling along.

When things were going well, the mayor could have turned miserable commutes into the city's No. 2 quality-of-life issue, after crime. He could have pledged to invest in modern technology to cut ride times for folks living in the outer limits of The Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn—subway rides over an hour, one way, are inexcusable in a city that claims to be world-class. The desire for the city's money could have enticed the MTA to cooperate on reform.

When the mayor did think big on infrastructure, he focused on fun projects like football stadiums and the Olympics—things that don't affect New Yorkers' lives hours each day.

Sure, building and maintaining a 21st-century transit system is expensive—but the administration found billions of dollars in extra funding for education and Medicaid.

Yesterday, the mayor was curt when it came to the MTA's troubles: "There certainly is not going to be more money coming from the city; we don't have it."

But the only way most New Yorkers can ignore the dysfunctional public authority with the widest impact on people's lives is to move far out of town.

That means the mayor can't ignore it, either.

This piece originally appeared in New York Post

This piece originally appeared in New York Post