Coming into office eight years ago, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie faced a fiscal disaster, following decades of shortsighted but popular policies that robbed the future. He talked like a problem solver, and could have made difficult choices to raise taxes and tolls, and reduce public services for everyone, not just for transit riders. But since the majority of New Jersey residents don’t follow state and local government closely, this would have meant Christie received all the blame for all that had gone before. So he punted, and shifted costs from the past further into the future, to the extent that this was possible. As a result he won a second term. But the future continues to become the present, and the bills continue to come due. He is leaving office as one of the most despised politicians in the country.
Coming into office today, therefore, New Jersey Governor-elect Phil Murphy also faces a fiscal disaster, this time at the peak of an economic cycle rather than in a deep recession. A fiscal disaster that is certain to get even worse when the next recession hits and the stock market corrects to something like fair value. And he faces those same two options. Raise taxes, cut services, and perhaps tell his public employee union supporters that they have to give up more to get back in solidarity with their fellow state residents. And be blamed for all of the above. Or hope that state residents have gotten used to how bad things are under Christie, kick the can a little further, and try to sneak into a second term before the additional bills come due. And then leave office as despised as Christie and outgoing Connecticut Governor Malloy.
I was a mass transit fan when mass transit wasn’t cool. My first job after graduate school was at New York City Transit, in logistics and inventory control in the mid-1980s, and I was a loyal transit rider for decades (though if I had gotten into bicycle transportation sooner, I might weigh 40 pounds less today). And I studied transit systems, read books about them, and after the development of the internet allowed those with similar interests but not much free time to communicate, made the acquaintance of other transit buffs and transit historians.
For much of the time from the late 1970s to today, metro New York’s rail transit system was on the upswing. Management improved, some of the worst labor abuses of the past were done away with (at least on the subway), and money was invested. As a result reliability improved, the inflation-adjusted cost per vehicle revenue hour fell until the mid-1990s, ridership increased and filled the trains, and the cost per rider fell even faster. Today ridership and revenues are vastly higher than 20 or 30 years ago on all major rail transit systems in metro New York, and those transit systems have been the engine of the New York Metro economy. If I and other transit buffs could go back in time 30 years, to the crime and grime and constant breakdowns of the 1980s, and know nothing of today other than how high ridership and transit revenues now are, what would we have thought the transit system would be like in 2017? We certainly would not have expected the disaster we seem to be facing. And collapsing systems despite soaring ridership are present elsewhere in the U.S. as well.
It has been a few years since I downloaded and compiled mass transit finance data from the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database, so I redid the analysis to see if anything had changed since 2012. Boy, it sure has. Between 2012 and 2013, based on that data, the reported operating cost of the New York City subway soared by 27.2% in just one year, an increase of more than $1 billion. There were no similar spikes among other major transit agencies in Metro New York. Suddenly the share of the subway’s operating costs that is covered by the fare is merely somewhat better than Metro North and the Long Island Railroad, instead of much, much better. And the wages and benefits of NYC subway workers, per hour worked, are the second highest behind PATH among major U.S. rail systems, instead of lower than those of NYC bus workers.
I’m not saying the figures for either year are false. In fact, as you’ll read, I have a possible explanation. But the new figures sure solve a lot of political problems. For TWU head John Samuelsen, who came out of the bus division and might have been catching heat from subway workers. For Governor Cuomo and suburban politicians, who might have been catching heat for the vastly higher level of subsidy for the suburbs. And for LIRR workers and their unions, who might have been concerned that featherbedding and graft would become more of a public issue, despite their control of – actually I’m not sure which politicians they control. But let’s take a look at what the data now shows, for 2015 and over the past 25 years. This post will cover operating costs, and the next one revenues.
If there is one thing that virtually every public policy commentator and politician seems to believe, it is that more should be spent on infrastructure. And yet the direction of public policy has been in the exact opposite direction, with maintenance often unfunded or funded by debts that now soak up a large share of revenues dedicated to roads, bridges, airports, and transit, water and sewer systems. The trend has been at its worst in the Northeast. And as costs from the past, including pension funding and debt service, increased between FY 2004 and FY 2014, expenditures on the future – on the infrastructure – decreased when measured per $1,000 of personal income. It’s a trend that, according to anecdotal evidence, continues to this day, with consequences that continue to appear over time as the sold out future becomes the present.
We are told that we have a crisis. The two Pennsylvania Railroad tunnels under the Hudson River are more than 100 years old, are deteriorating, were damaged by Superstorm Sandy, and could need to be shut down for repair at any time. Cutting off the approximately 46,000 New Jersey Transit and Amtrak riders who use the tunnels to get to Manhattan between 7 am and 10 am on a typical weekday. The solution: a Gateway Tunnel plan that would take 20 years and $20 billion. We are told that we have a crisis – the Port Authority Bus Terminal is aging, deteriorating, unable to cope with rising traffic, and liable to become unusable due to the deterioration of its concrete decking. The solution: the construction of an interim terminal, and then a new terminal, for more than $10 billion, taking at least 10 years and perhaps 15.
This is what happens when you plan for every interest group to be paid off, years of hearings where every NIMBY activist has their say, years of planning in which every conflict is settled by the addition of more money, and a construction process in which metro New York’s rapacious consultants, contractors and construction unions are allowed to turn essential projects into perpetual gravy trains. That is what happened at the World Trade Center site, with its massively expensive and much delayed PATH station, at the Fulton Street Transit Center site, and at East Side Access. Extra years, extra billions, extra campaign contributions for incumbent politicians, but no extra benefits for the serfs who will have to pay the interest on the associated debts for the rest of their lives, long after the beneficiaries depart for Florida or the grave. If this were a real emergency the politicians would find a way to make all these vetoes, sinecures, and extravagances go away. What would they do then? Here is a summary of what people who follow these issues are saying.