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Subway Hijinks

Tags Big GovernmentFree MarketsInterventionismMonopoly and Competition

02/11/2009Gregory Bresiger

One of the projects that President Obama's close to trillion dollar stimulus package is designed to pay for will be a much delayed subway line in New York City. The line has been authorized and paid for by taxpayers time and again through bond issues and federal aid over more than 60 years. Yet the line is years away because of cost overruns and various public sector problems.

Given the porkish nature of all these federal and state make-work programs, it is unlikely the subway line will be operating any time soon, yet riders are already being told of the marvels of public-sector projects.

Few things are funnier than reading Metropolitan Transportation Authority releases, the subway statements of pols or one of the delightfully devious "Heads Up" ads posted in subway cars. Recently, as I was delayed once again on the subway between stations one Saturday, I looked up and almost fell on the ground laughing as I read this gem from the MTA.

Starting in 2015, the new Second Avenue Subway will help relieve overcrowding on the Lexington Ave Lines. Overdue, but excellent news.

The MTA's leaders, along with their political enablers, obviously assume that the typical rider has no sense of history; that he or she has either forgotten or never learned the sordid history of countless broken promises by long-forgotten politicians. Reviewing their Second Avenue Subway promises, one thinks of the solemn and almost-always-broken treaties made with Native Americans, or what historian Helen Hunt called "The Shame of a Nation." The Second Avenue Subway could be called "The Shame of a City" — and of its political class across generations.

But our ruling Plunkitts and Tweeds know there's no need to worry. Indeed, as a former British cabinet member, Duff Cooper, once said, "Old men forget." We forget almost all of what has happened in the disastrous 67-year history of city and state authorities running our subways — and the federal government also kicking in big bucks. And that's a good thing for our rulers in New York and Washington. Otherwise we would remember that this infamous Second Avenue line was promised and repromised, as well as paid for several times over in the past 65 years or so!

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who left City Hall in 1945, promised a Second Avenue Subway. He ran a "reform administration" that bought out the last privately managed lines. He ordered the Second and Third Avenue Els dismantled with the promise that a brand new underground Second Avenue line would replace them.

It never happened on his reform watch.

Yes, but the regulars, under Mayor William O'Dwyer, got back in power in 1946 after LaGuardia departed. O'Dwyer, in the Rancid Apple tradition of Mayor Jimmy Walker, later had to leave town owing to his legal problems. But in the 1950s, the regulars still persuaded the voters to pass a bond issue for a Second Avenue Subway. The voters once again believed their politicians — reform, regular, extra crispy, etc. — who regardless of party label usually run on a platform of promising the sun, moon, stars, and all the planets if only one gives them one's vote.

The bond issue, which added more debt, easily passed in 1951 — and guess what? The line was never built. The money was needed for other things because in the 1950s — as in the 1960s, '70s, '80s, '90s, 2000s, etc — the system was falling apart, but money was needed then and now just to close the persistent deficits that happen whenever the government runs anything.

Yet despite the best efforts of pols and mainstream journalists — who lectured people to use mass transit, while they themselves often used cars — bad things happened. Fewer and fewer people over the last 60 years rode the wretched subways. And why not? The public system has progressively become dirtier and slower. It is a hopeless place where one should be advised to wear ear protection.

So the government through its various authorities couldn't get people to ride subways. The subways ran bigger and bigger deficits, a frequent theme in just about any government-sponsored enterprise, as some are just learning with Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.

However, authority enablers (who in the 1950s and '60s looked the other way as authorities started skimping on maintenance) kept insisting that it was ridiculous to ever expect the system to break even, no less turn a profit. This conveniently overlooked the fact that, in the first 20 years of the system from 1904 until the early 1920s under a private management company like the Interborough Rapid Transit System (IRT), the subway did make money. Indeed, it was considered "an engineering marvel," according to Robert Caro in his biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker.

Later, of course, the IRT was happy to sell out. The backdoor socialism of price controls — the fare was never allowed to rise above a nickel until the government and then the fare went through the roof — destroyed the IRT just as rent controls slowly destroy many properties.

But back in the golden era of the subways under private management, people came from all over the world to admire our system. Try telling that to people who ride the system today on the weekends when there is no express service. Try telling that to passengers who are constantly delayed because the signaling system is ancient, dating back to the 1930s (even though reverse signaling has been the standard for a generation or more). But in the 1960s, the politicians continued on their merry way when the subject was the now mythical Second Avenue line.

In 1967, another bond issue was passed. Once again, the voters agreed to impose more debt on themselves and their scions with the promise of a new subway line. These decisions have helped to make New York State one of the highest debt states in the nation.

Mayor John Lindsay (1966–1973) knew all about running red ink and making promises that never came to fruition.

In the 1960s, Lindsay promised to expand the E and F lines from Jamaica to the Queens/Nassau border. That, of course, never happened, although the Archer Avenue extension in the 1980s tried to make riders forget that any such promise had ever been made.

Lindsay broke ground for the Second Avenue line in October 1972, or tried to do so. He had trouble with the jackhammer, which was an ominous sign. Nevertheless, someone helped him and, with a pack of vote-hungry public officials watching, the ground was broken for the Second Avenue line. Overburdened East Side riders expected a new line by the 1970s or surely by the early 1980s.

Then it happened again. You guessed it. The money disappeared, even though the voters had approved a second bond issue. Once again, there was no Second Avenue Subway. But politicians always have new elections on the horizon and schemes to make those elections turn out the way they want.

So, with the fervent hope that none of his constituents ever cared about subway history, Rockefeller Republican Governor George Pataki, in 2005, proposed a state transportation bond issue, which easily passed. Every Democrat in the state loved it. So did most Republicans, who, in an example of what Orwell called newspeak, represent themselves as fiscal conservatives.

The bond issue included the infamous East Side line. Yes, more debt for the highly taxed Big Apple, but now we would "only" have ten years to wait. That's all.

Sure, it's "overdue" (sic), but it's coming, according to the official MTA party line, as explained to long-suffering subway riders who look up while hearing PA announcements that either blast their hearing or are announced in a strange, static-filled, undecipherable language.

New York's Founding Father of "Internal Improvements"

Still, before we all get carried away, let us remember history. Let us remember that the record of the MTA and of prior authorities finishing projects is about as good as the New York Mets' recent record in finishing seasons. Let us remember that the MTA has been promising reverse signaling for years, a development that is, even now, years in the offing, according to its own schedule. Let us remember the record of the WPA in restoring prosperity to America in the 1930s.

Finally, let us remember that there is a word that can never be discussed or even mentioned when we talk about the myriad flawed federal, state, and city transportation systems. I mention the word now sotto voce, because I fear for my life to even say it. It is a word so evil that no important pol in New York will ever utter it even in private.

That word is "privatization."


Gregory Bresiger

Gregory Bresiger (GregoryBresiger.com) is an independent business journalist who lives in Kew Gardens, Queens, New York. He is the author of MoneySense, a forthcoming book of basic of money management with a libertarian point of view.

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