Theodore Kheel: My Proposal to Robert Moses

kheel1.JPGTheodore Kheel (pictured right), has been called by The New York Times "the most influential peacemaker in New York City in the last half-century" in light of the fact that he has participated in the resolution of more than 30,000 labor disputes. Kheel has founded several related foundations devoted to resolving the conflict between the environment and development, and has been an advocate for mass transit for over fifty years. He is a regular Streetsblog reader. A shorter version of this essay appeared in the New York Times this Sunday.

The three commemorative exhibits on Robert Moses, like the press articles covering them, have neglected the mass transit issue almost as seriously as Moses did. The New York Times mentioned in passing that he "championed highways as he starved mass transit" but said no more on the subject. Paul Goldberger, writing for the New Yorker, devoted a few more words to the matter, before dismissing it entirely. He reasoned: "[I]n Moses’s day cities all over the country were building highways at the expense of mass transit. Some critics were complaining but most people didn’t see [the problem] until long after the damage had been done."

Perhaps Moses was doing what everyone else was doing, or perhaps he was leading the others. Whatever our conclusion, it does a disservice to our city to ignore this piece of the Moses story, and what it has to teach us. With that thought in mind, I decided to share with New Yorkers my most notable experience with Moses.

572px_Robert_Moses_with_Battery_Bridge_model.jpgIt was 1965. Moses’ Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority was awash in funds; so was the Port Authority, headed by Austin Tobin. Meanwhile, mass transit was strapped for money, and transit workers were demanding higher wages. Moses and Tobin had built empires catering to the automobile, while turning a back on mass transit; they were not concerned.

I decided to make a proposal. I suggested that tolls for the city’s bridges and tunnels be doubled, and the proceeds used to subsidize mass transit. If this two-pronged proposal sounds mundane now, in 1965, it did not. It was front page news in all the city’s papers, including the New York Times; in some, it commanded two inch banner headlines. Moses and Tobin, normally arch rivals, joined immediately in branding the proposal illegal. Later, in an article titled "Is Rubber to Pay for Rails," Moses fumed: "Ted Kheel has gone berserk." "The Kheel scheme is too silly for words." "Of course, nothing will come of it." "Kheel has earned the degree of M.U.B., Master of Unconscionable Bunk."

Harsh words. And maybe a little shortsighted. For a seed of an idea had been planted, and it slowly grew. Within a few years, tolls were doubled and then tripled, and TBTA revenues were eventually used, in part, to fund mass transit.

Fast forward to the present. Once again a transit problem confronts us, as we face the reality that car congestion is strangling the city’s economy, destroying our health, and damaging the atmosphere. And once again, a novel and controversial solution has been proposed, or rather, a pair of solutions, which– like my two-pronged proposal in 1965– would turn car drivers’ pain into mass transit’s gain.

Here are the old ideas in their new clothes. Prong one is congestion pricing: imposing a fee on cars driven in the city, which would discourage some from driving, and raise revenues from those who do; prong two, is free mass transit: eliminating the bus and subway fare, and using the revenues from congestion pricing to cover the costs. The carrot and the stick. Simple enough. But as strange to our way of thinking as my proposal almost half a century ago.

Here’s what they say about these ideas.

First, on congestion pricing, a recent New York Times article reported: "Everyone accepts that if your car is stationary, it’s fine to pay for parking." "But if you tell people they have to pay to move their car between two points, they think it’s crazy." Maybe in New York. But congestion pricing has been adopted successfully in cities like London, Stockholm, Rome, Singapore, Melbourne and Toronto. In fact, as the article acknowledges, "there’s reason to think that we could be entering a golden age for congestion pricing."

What about free transit? I recently funded a $100,000 study of the benefits of free mass transit, in the belief the benefits would outweigh the costs. The concept shocked many. One writer branded my proposal that of "some hippy environmentalists"; others dismissed the idea as hopelessly utopian- not knowing, perhaps, that only a small portion of transit costs are paid today by fare revenues, and that funds from congestion pricing could comfortably cover that amount. Yet the proposal intrigued people, at the same time it surprised them. Newspapers, television stations, and public radio picked up the story. Pictures of crumpled Metrocards circulated on several websites, while another announced "Metrocards Make Good Coasters." Comments streamed in on the blogs. One site described the proliferating discussion as a "free frenzy".

And that takes me back to Moses and the 1960s. The twin concepts of congestion pricing and free transit are seedlings, only recently planted. They make too much sense, however, not to take hold. I predict that fifty years from today, these ideas will seem as mundane as my 1965 suggestion that revenues from Moses’ TBTA be applied to subsidize mass transit. If, however, we remember what Moses did, and Goldberger’s apology that everyone was doing it, perhaps we could move our thinking forward at just a little faster pace. I think we could.

  • crzwdjk

    “only a small portion of transit costs are paid today by fare revenues”
    Last I checked, it was over 70% of operating costs for the NYC subway. Capital costs are, of course, a separate matter, and do come from taxes. And there are a few good reasons to keep transit fares. First, if transit is free, there will be little internal incentive to improve it. Even a subsidized transit system can be run in a business-like fashion, and as Metro North shows, the results can be quite good. Second, if transit is free, then there will be a sudden increase in ridership, at the expense of other modes. It would mean fewer people drive, yes, but it would also mean that fewer people bike and walk as well. And it would also mean that the already at-capacity subways will be swamped with even more riders, but no new funds to buy more trains and build more tracks. Finally, the more “successful” this scheme is in terms of reducing the number of cars on the road, the further the subway is starved of funding, creating an incentive to keep as many cars on the road as possible while charging them as much as possible. Overall, this just doesn’t seem like a good idea.

  • When there was free transit during “spare the air” days in the SF Bay area, regular transit riders complained that the buses and trains filled up with disruptive teenagers taking excursions just because it was free.

    Incidentally, of the six freeways in the US that have been removed, two were built by Robert Moses – the West Side Highway in New York, and the Robert Moses Parkway in Niagara Falls. (See Let’s remove the Sheridan and make it three.

  • AD

    In the ideal world, the subway probably ought not to be free, but since it’s free to drive your behemoth Hummer down a street (causing road maintenance issues, congestion issues, danger issues and pollution issues, all of which are paid for by the general population), it ought to be deemed absurd that one must pay money to ride the subway. I have a hunch that the SF Bay Area teenagers who rode the trains during the spare the air days were there as much for the novelty of the free fare as for its low cost, and that if there were spare the air days all the time, they’d become less prevalent.

  • crzwdjk

    I think what we need is a leveling of the playing field between cars and public transit. Drivers need to pay for the full impact of their driving, and at the same time, capital funding needs to be redirected to let public transit catch up to the massive level of investment in highways over the past 50 years. And once the government’s favorable treatment of cars is gone, we might even see some profitable subway systems.

  • At the very least, this kind of creative thinking about free transit can help dispel the common challenges to subsidies of transit. I think it also puts forth a bold vision for a broader role for transit that brings the conversation out of the quagmire of excuses about costs.

    Beyond some very basic BRT, it seems we are not really thinking about the much larger role that transit can play and its value as an integral part of the city’s public space.

    The assertion that transit could/should be free may be a challenge to the growing thinking about market based access to mobility, but when you look at the way that the automobile has been allowed to privatize much of our public realm (as a result of subsidies), more heavily subsidized or free transit may be the bold vision necessary to take back that space from the privatization of the automobile.

  • crzwdjk

    There are two kinds of expense in running a transit system: capital and operational. Operational expenses consist of paying to run the trains, clean the stations, collect the fares, and so on. Capital expenses are those for building new lines, as well as buying new trains and performing major system upgrades. These two sets of expenses are generally funded separately, and fares are only intended to cover operational expenses.
    In the case of automobiles, a similar split also holds: operational expenses are paid for by the driver, and to some extent also by the rest of society bearing the cost of pollution and congestion. Capital expenses have, however, been paid for by the government, traditionally with the federal government covering 90% of the expense of building a new highway. For transit the situation has been different, with the federal government paying for around 50% of the cost, and that only for a few projects and only if the right senators are given their free lunches. And intercity rail gets almost no capital funding at all, with the actual amount being determined by how much Amtrak can beg from Congress in that particular year. Just changing federal funding priorities would accomplish a great deal. And building new transit is probably the best way to get people to ride it, including getting more passengers on the lines that are already there.

    If you replace fares with some kind of cross-subsidy from drivers, you end up with increased transit ridership, and in fact higher operational costs because of it. But you get no new funds for capital programs, and transit lines have limited capacity. In NYC, a free subway will almost certainly cause ridership to exceed the existing system capacity, resulting in overcrowding and unreliable service. I think it is best when people take transit because it is better, not because it is free.


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