ANYONE wandering the dank catacombs of the SEPTA concourse under City Hall could be forgiven for thinking that the transit agency is stuck in the Dark Ages. No wonder last summer's announcement that SEPTA was named the best large transit system in North America by the American Public Transportation Association was met with skepticism, if not downright incredulity.

But recent revelations about SEPTA's creative efforts to economize in the face of reduced subsidies prompts a closer look at the agency - especially for lessons that might apply to other institutions, like the Philadelphia School District. SEPTA indeed seems to have slowly and steadily turned the once-beleaguered battleship around, inviting respect rather than ridicule even from transit watchdogs.

Awards aren't necessarily definitive, of course, and SEPTA is hardly perfect. Its procrastination in implementing high-tech fare payment is a lamentable shortcoming, for instance. Then there's the high cost of transfers; the delay in overhauling old facilities, such as the aforementioned concourse; the inevitable surly operator or employee with an attitude.

But.

Crime is down. On-time train performance is trending above 90 percent, a goal the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers has been advocating for decades. SEPTA has a control center where every aspect of the system is efficiently managed. The hybrid buses and the country's first LEED Silver train station represent its commitment to sustainability. It accessed federal stimulus funds to renovate stations that hadn't been touched since the Charleston was the dance of the day and Republicans ran this city. Ridership is the highest it has been in 23 years. And the agency is financially sound.

Let's say that again. While other transit agencies are perched on their own fiscal cliff, SEPTA's financial management has created a stability that has so far averted talks of fare hikes or service cuts. It has balanced its budget for the past 13 years.

All that is now threatened by federal and state governments that refuse to invest in transportation, and SEPTA has been forced to delay capital budget projects and rely on its rainy-day fund to survive. But it has a rainy-day fund. And its current effort to save millions of dollars in energy efficiencies is but one example of creative economizing.

Most importantly, the agency has become more customer-oriented, with a department devoted entirely to customer-service advocacy.

So, how did the SEPTA transformation occur? Some observers attribute the changes to Joseph Casey, the general manager. But credit surely must be shared - as Casey did when he accepted the transit award - throughout the system, as well as with the once-fractious SEPTA board that's now productive.

When the public-transit association honored SEPTA last summer, its president said, "SEPTA's many accomplishments and achievements are models for the rest of the public-transit industry."

It's reassuring to know that with the right leadership, dysfunctional public institutions can reinvent themselves. Dare we hope the same might apply to the schools, the courts and the state Legislature, to name just a few?