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Citizens Union

In a fascinating new book, Tunneling to the Future, historian Peter Derrick tells the story of the creation of the New York City subway system between 1902 and 1920. The first line, little more than a trip from City Hall to Grand Central, took six years to build, between 1902 and 1908.

But the next stage, the 114 miles of the so-called Dual System (the IRT and the BMT systems), was more than 80 percent completed in just seven years, from 1914 to the end of 1920. The largest public works project built in this country at the time, it cost the equivalent of about $25 billion (in 1999 dollars), and gave New York City more miles of rail rapid transit than all the other cities of the world combined.

There was, to be sure, time spent before actual construction on bitter disputes over finances. But even taking that into account, the Dual System was created in about a decade.

Today, with luck, far smaller projects will take at least four times as long. The 63rd Street subway and Long Island Railroad tunnel are still not finished, 33 years after the plan to build it was published, and it is not clear that the LIRR part of the tunnel will ever be finished.


In the best of circumstances, we today could not match the Dual System in speed of completion, because of environmental concerns, concerns about worker safety, and the demise of deferential politics (to put it mildly). But those factors do not fully explain our inability to move ahead with big projects.

The biggest difference is this: In the past, the big projects that went ahead seemed so urgently necessary that there was little real opposition to the idea of the project itself, only to specifics of management, design and who might win financially. The 1913 plan for the Dual System reflected a desperate need to reduce the hideous overcrowding in the city -- the worst in the world at that time -- by providing rapid transit services to the parts of the city then lightly populated.

Similarly, the completion of three great bridges across the East River in a very few years reflected the need to unify the city physically as well as politically after 1898.

The rapid building of limited access highways that began in the 1920s came about because, suddenly, there was mass ownership of motor vehicles, and no streets for them; there never had been any serious road building within cities in New York or anywhere else. For example, the late unlamented Miller Highway (the elevated West Side highway) was built to get auto traffic off the streets serving the North River piers, because the traffic had been strangling the port business. There was no real opposition to highway building in the city until after World War II when Robert Moses began building roads that caused massive displacement. (It should be noted that this was often done because it was the cheap way to go. Nearly all the Moses roads were built at low standards compared to the limited access roads then being built in Los Angeles and Chicago, the only other places to do so within cities on a large scale before 1960).

New Yorkers viewed any of today's projects with the same urgency, we would find a way to do them. For example, about 15 years ago, New Yorkers feared that the Williamsburg Bridge would have to be replaced completely because of its physical deterioration. If that had been necessary, the financing surely would have materialized. It would not have mattered that the estimated cost was put at more than $15 billion. The few opponents would have been dismissed as crackpots.

But there is likely to be much more effective opposition when only relatively few people see proposed large projects as necessary and urgent.

Take the case of the Third Avenue subway. Those who push for it say it will relieve overcrowding on the Upper East Side (when that can be done far more cheaply and quickly by more train service on the existing Lexington Avenue line). They say it will get rid of the "long walks" to the Lexington line stations (walks that are shorter than those done daily by 90 percent of Brooklyn and Queens subway riders). Why should we expect it to be quickly approved, financed and built?

Then there is the skepticism and opposition generated by the fact that ALL projects have enormous over-runs in cost and date of completion, especially transit projects.


Are there no solutions, aside from abandoning all but a very few projects that almost everyone agrees are desperately needed?

Some possibilities:

1. Devise institutional arrangements that truly and convincingly contain money and time costs from the get-go. I can imagine some such arrangements, but like almost everything sensible with regard to transportation policy, there are extraordinary political difficulties in the way.

2. The seemingly impossible political obstacles logically suggest private financing and management as the standard mode of operation in urban transportation, something that is increasingly the conclusion of transportation economists, such as Clifford Winstonof The Brookings Institution.

That is not going to happen soon in the People's Republic of New York (which socialized the Long Island Lighting Company just as the rest of the country had finished deregulating most utility and intercity transportation services almost overnight).

But why not think seriously about projects that are independent of overall networks, at least at the outset (as the elevated lines in Manhattan and Brooklyn were before 1900)?

The most cogent examples are the serious proposals for light-rail lines in Manhattan:

  • 42nd Street (there will be no 42nd Street light-rail for at least 20 more years, if it remains a public-sector project);
  • Second Avenue (or a First and Second Avenue pairing), as a substitute for the pie-in-the-sky Second Avenue subway;
  • The Village Crosstown light-rail proposal.

In each of these cases, all that government need do is to grant the franchises, along the lines of the public utilities laws (but without price and service regulation) and agree to closing part or all of the street to motor vehicle traffic.

This obviously should have been done for the JFK to Manhattan rail link ages ago. (Instead we are to get an expensive rail link of very limited utility). BAA Ltd, the private owner and operator of the London airports built and operates a splendid rail connection (Heathrow to Paddington) -- high speed and frequent service, built with its own funds over a very short period. Of course, they used existing rail lines in part. But surprise, surprise, we have existing rail lines that could have been used, but alas owned but not used by the Metropolitan Transit Authority, for low-level political reasons.

3.To the extent that funds generated by government are necessary (and there are sensible projects for which this is the case), we can go back to an old idea, one never considered in recent years, but propounded from the mid-19th century. Indeed, it actually was the main source of finance for the New York City subway system.

That is the land value tax. While no one stated explicitly that the land value tax was the main financing for the New York City subways, it really was: the New York City bonds that were issued were general obligations of the city at a time when the city used only one tax, the property tax, and a very large part of the huge increase in the property tax base from 1900 or so until the Great Depression really was the increase in the value of the underlying land. This should be obvious for the outer boroughs, where the great majority of the structures built in those years were of inexpensive light construction, but this applies to a lot of northern Manhattan as well. Major transportation improvements serving already built-up areas (New York City is not empty like the High Desert in southern California) must increase land values, not building values.

Surprise, surprise, owners of interests in land are hostile to this notion. So they are likely to be generous supporters of what we try to do in financing transportation improvements: tax those who gain little or nothing economically from the projects, like ordinary consumers and workers. To be sure, their lives are made better. But the taxes we use are really akin to taxing welfare recipients to finance welfare.

Sometimes, in the world of New York politics, it is possible actually to complete, within a reasonable time, useful modest-sized projects that only a small fraction of voters see as important. But that is possible only if few voters see such ventures as bad ideas.

It takes heavy lifting and real political risk--as it did when the Dual System of subways was built--when those conditions are not met. But the last time there was really heavy lifting in public affairs in New York was 25 years ago, when there was a desperate fiscal crisis. That is not something to be wished for, nor it is likely to happen. So, settling for small things--that make sense, one hopes--seems the best we can expect.

Dick Netzer is Professor Emeritus of Economics and Public Administration at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service of New York University

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