Want a Clean Bill of Health for the MTA? Call Obama.

Former MTA CEO Lee Sander spent the last two-and-a-half years doing his best to make the MTA a transparent, accountable public agency, and in doing so restore its reputation. He let the sunshine in, but was unable to undo the damage to the agency's image caused by years of attacks from transit advocates, unions and politicians.

In politics, reputation matters. The scapegoating of the MTA has undermined the political case for transit funding and given cover to the hypocrites in Albany who blame the MTA, instead of themselves, for the agency's funding woes. Looking forward, it is critical that the MTA burnish its reputation as an effective and accountable public agency and excellent investment for public funds. There are many political forces that benefit from keeping the MTA as a scapegoat, its reputation besmirched. So, a clean bill of health for the MTA requires an unimpeachable, politically formidable force far above the gutter of the New York political fray. How about President Obama?

The president has spent enormous energy restoring public confidence in the banking system. A key part of his efforts has been the Treasury Department’s careful scrutiny of bank management and finances. Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Paterson should ask President Obama to help restore public confidence in the MTA by ordering the Federal Transit Administration to send in a team of management, finance and policy experts. The MTA receives millions in federal support and the U.S. government has a strong interest in seeing that money well spent. The FTA team would definitively and publicly assess the state of the MTA, detailing both its good and bad management practices while clarifying and vetting agency finances.

Most transit experts believe the MTA is a relatively well run public agency which compares favorably with other big American and foreign transit systems. The agency’s biggest problem is that the state and city have spent the last two decades reducing their financial support, loading the agency with debt, and making it overly dependent on volatile, cyclical funding like the mortgage recording tax. The FTA's assessment would bring these facts to the fore and lay the political groundwork for a stronger case for transit funding.