April 1, 2007
By THEODORE W. KHEEL
Bridge and Tunnel Vision
exhibitions on the master builder Robert Moses -- at the Museum
of the City of New York, the Queens Museum of Art and Columbia
University -- that are on view in New York City have neglected
the mass transit issue almost as seriously as Moses did.
Perhaps Moses was doing what everyone else was doing, or perhaps
he was leading the others. But it does a disservice to the region
to ignore this piece of the Moses story, which deserves retelling.
It was 1965. Moses' Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority was
awash in funds; so was the Port Authority, headed by Austin
Tobin. Meanwhile, the Transit Authority was facing a deficit
and contemplating increasing the 15-cent fare even as transit
workers were demanding higher wages. Moses and Tobin had built
empires catering to the automobile; they were not concerned
with mass transit's problems.
At the time, I was a contract arbitrator of labor disputes between
the Transit Authority and the transport workers union. As someone
who knew a great deal about mass transit, I proposed that tolls
for the city's bridges and tunnels be doubled, and the proceeds
used to subsidize mass transit. If this proposal sounds mundane
now, in 1965 it caused a sensation. It was front-page news in
all the city's papers. My proposal was labeled ludicrous and
reporters speculated that I had gone berserk. Moses and Tobin,
normally archrivals, joined immediately in branding the proposal
But still, a seed of an idea had been planted, and it slowly
grew. Within a few years, tolls were doubled and then tripled,
and revenue from the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority
was eventually used, in part, to finance 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 region's economy, destroying our health and damaging the
atmosphere. And once again, a creative 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
Here are the old ideas in their new clothes. Prong No. 1 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 No. 2 is free mass transit: eliminating
the bus and subway fare, and using the revenues from congestion
pricing to cover the costs. Simple enough -- but as strange
to our way of thinking as my proposal almost half a century
Here's what people are saying about these ideas.
First, people seem to think congestion pricing is crazy. But
congestion pricing is working in cities like London, Melbourne,
Rome, Singapore and Stockholm. And there's no reason to think
that it can't work here.
What about free transit? I recently financed a $100,000 study
of the benefits of free mass transit, in the belief the benefits
would outweigh the costs. Some commentators dismissed the idea
as hopelessly utopian -- not knowing, perhaps, that only a small
part of transit costs are covered today by fares, and that funds
from congestion pricing could comfortably replace that amount.
Yet the proposal intrigued people at the same time it surprised
them. Newspapers, television stations and public radio picked
up the story. One blog 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 50 years from today, these ideas will seem as
mundane as my 1965 suggestion that revenue from Moses' Triborough
Bridge and Tunnel Authority be applied to subsidize mass transit.
If, however, we remember what Moses did, perhaps we could move
our thinking forward just a little faster. I think we could.
Theodore W. Kheel, a labor lawyer and mediator, is the
author of ''The Keys to Conflict Resolution.''