Sarah Feinberg Alone Has Been Minding the MTA Mint: The Federal Transit Man

Written by Larry Penner, FTA Region 2 (Ret.)
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Interim MTA New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg

Who has been minding the mint after learning about the latest New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority example of potential waste, fraud and abuse? It’s Interim MTA New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg, who after only four months on the job revealed that her operating agency has been functioning with an incomplete organization chart.

The most basic information explaining the tasks assigned each of thousands of employees and their supervisors was not available. Any CEO of a public or private organization with a budget in the billions should have these details readily available. Any Human Resources Department should also have this basic information on file for every employee. Any supervisor needs this information to perform annual performance appraisals. So, how can each NYC Transit department head manage large numbers of mid-level supervisors and employees?

Feinberg also found she had to deal with multiple lists of consultants under contract to perform work for NYC Transit. It is a challenge just to determine what work each consultant is performing. How essential is their assigned work to the agency? Why wasn’t more of this work assigned to in-house resources?

Based upon Feinberg’s disturbing findings, one has to ask if the presidents of the Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North, MTA Capital Construction and MTA Bus have up-to-date organization charts, complete lists of staff assigned to each supervisor and department head, tasks assigned to each employee, and a complete understanding of their respective outside consultants program.

Give Feinberg credit for instituting a freeze on out-of-state travel and employee use of MTA vehicles for private trips and travel to work. I would exempt those engineers visiting out-of-state manufacturing plants to perform inspection, quality assurance and quality control for any ongoing work.

Why hasn’t MTA Chairman Pat Foye directed all the other MTA operating agency presidents to follow these excellent examples by Feinberg? The same reforms should also apply to several hundred MTA headquarters employees as well.

How could current and previous MTA Chairs and board members along with operating agency presidents not have known about these critical issues for years?

This situation is reminiscent of what was found within the LIRR East Side Access to Grand Central Terminal project managed by MTA’s Office of Capital Construction ten years ago when an accountant reviewing a budget for train platforms being constructed under Grand Central Terminal performed a simple audit. The accountant found that funding was provided under the project budget to pay for 900 workers, but could only find paperwork to justify 700 workers. No one on the MTA LIRR Eastside Access project could explain what tasks the other unaccounted-for 200 workers performed. These 200 potential phantom employees were being paid at $1,000 dollars per day. They were subsequently removed from the payroll. No one ever determined how long they were on the payroll or how much they were paid. There is no evidence that these lost dollars were ever recovered.

The MTA needs to do a far better job rooting out waste, fraud and abuse. Stop crying that the sky is falling and services will be drastically cut without a second $3.9 billion CARES Act COVID-19 bailout from Washington. The MTA must put its own $17 billion annual operating and $51 billion Five Year 2020-2024 Capital Program in order first. New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, the New York City Office of Management and Budget and New York City Independent Budget Office need to investigate Sarah Feinberg’s findings. The U.S. Department of Transportation, New York State Department of Transportation and MTA Inspector General need to follow up.

Other major MTA funding agencies such as the Federal Transit Administration also need to take a close look at these issues. NYC Transit averages spending 70% of the $12 billion available in open active FTA grants. They will be receiving 70% of the $1.4 billion in federal fiscal year 2020 FTA funding. FTA has a legal and moral responsibility to ensure NYC Transit and all MTA operating agencies have the technical capacity to avoid having to deal with these critical issues raised by Feinberg.

Larry Penner, “The Federal Transit Man,” is a transportation historian, writer and advocate who previously worked 31 years for the United States Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for the MTA, NYC Transit, Long Island Rail Road, Metro North Railroad, MTA Bus, New Jersey Transit and 30 other transit agencies in New York and New Jersey.

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