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7— Mass Transportation and the Limited Capabilities of Government
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Mass Transportation and the Limited Capabilities of Government

Even a cursory glance at the evolution of transportation patterns in the New York region during the past half-century reveals stark contrasts between the highway system on the one hand, and the facilities available for mass transportation—travel along fixed routes by rail or bus—on the other.[1] The road system, as well as highway trips by automobile and truck, have expanded geometrically, and the impact of these changes in reshaping the urban region has been extensive and dramatic. With respect to the principal concerns of this volume, the highway-building coalition obviously deserves close attention in order to determine the role of governmental actors in the patterns and timing of highway expansion, and to identify the sources and motivations of governmental action.

In contrast, the public transportation system—especially its extensive rail component—has declined in quality and ridership during the past several decades. Every major private rail carrier in the region has gone into bankruptcy, publicly owned rail services generate large deficits, almost no new rail lines have been built for forty years, and the financial conditions of most bus operations serving cities and suburbs are distinctly unhealthy. Nonetheless, the major railroad, subway and bus lines found in the region twenty and thirty years ago still exist; commuters and mid-day travelers (if they wait patiently) still do travel on the Long Island Rail Road, Conrail, suburban bus lines, and New York city's vast network of subway and surface lines.[2] It is not a public transport system in rapid decline; instead it is a largely static system, at least when viewed in the context of the


regional dynamics described in previous chapters. For more than half a century, the region has expanded and changed through the vigorous interactions of highway builders, private businesses and homebuyers seeking new locations, aggressive developers, and cautious or unwary local officials with zoning powers. But mass transit officials—governmental and private—seem condemned to be onlookers rather than shapers of urban development. By and large they serve a declining, residual fragment of the region's residents: those so unfortunate or so wise that they do not rely on automobiles for the journey to work and all other activities but bathroom and bed.

When contrasted with the highway-building system, then, it may seem relatively unimportant to sort out the role of governmental action in shaping the evolution of mass transit in the region. For the mass transit system has hardly evolved at all. Yet the critic or reformer can justify some attention to mass transportation, if only to examine the potential, or paradise, lost: Why did government not act more vigorously—using funds and other public powers to revitalize the rail system, and in this way effectively hinder the evolution toward diffuse suburban growth in the past three decades? More-over, through such an examination it should be possible to assess better the impact on the region's future development of government mass transit programs—programs that have become more desirable to many as a consequence of rising energy costs.

Mass Transportation and the Region's Development

Movement outward from the central urban areas began long before the automobile was an important means of travel. As noted in Chapter Two, trolleys and railroad lines fostered and shaped suburbanization in the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the present century. The expectation of private profit was an important stimulus to these mass transit developments; but public funds and other forms of governmental collaboration were also significant factors in establishing rail lines, horse-drawn street-cars, and electrified trolleys in New York and other urban regions.[3]

The networks of transit lines created through these public and private efforts had far-reaching effects on patterns of housing and job location—effects that were to some extent foreseen by their initiators. The new transit lines allowed workers to seek housing farther removed from their job locations, since they could now travel quickly from homes in Queens and West-chester to factories and offices in Brooklyn and Manhattan. In New Jersey, suburban growth was encouraged by railroad lines extending out from Jersey City, Newark, and Paterson; and after 1910 two new rail lines under the Hudson River provided additional incentives for Manhattan workers to seek apartments and houses in the western suburbs.[4] At the same time, these


transportation lines made it possible for employers to tap the large and growing pool of workers—as long as their offices and plants were located at the hubs of the expanding rail networks.

In the several decades before World War I, then, extensive rail construction activities permitted greater concentration of employment centers in the New York region, and especially in the Manhattan business district, than would otherwise have been possible. The rail system also encouraged residential suburbanization, and helped to determine the structure of suburban growth—which tended to cluster along rail lines, and especially near railroad stations and rapid transit stops, so that travel time to job and shopping locations could be minimized. Thus the developing transit system had both a decentralizing impact—encouraging residential locations in the suburbs—and a centralizing influence—attracting business firms to Manhattan, Jersey City, and other downtown areas of the expanding metropolis, and holding them there.[5]

After the 1920s there were few significant additions to the rail network of the New York area. In this region as in others, however, bus transportation expanded sharply (largely through the initiative of private companies), reaching its highest passenger levels in the 1940s and early 1950s.[6] Although government has come to play an increasingly important role in keeping the region's mass transportation system operating over the past quarter century, no significant additions have been brought about by governmental initiative and funds during this period. In terms of impact on population and employment patterns in the region, there are no mass transportation counterparts to the


interstate highway system or the Narrows Bridge.[7] Instead, public action has been directed toward more modest objectives: slowing the general decline of existing rail and bus service, stabilizing mass transit service during commuting hours, and replacing wornout equipment.

It is understandable that this kind of governmental effort may not be viewed as significant, when compared with the dramatic road-building efforts of the postwar era, or the massive projects of the earlier railroad and subway construction decades. But that perspective may be too myopic. Suppose that the railroad commuting system of the New York region had collapsed, following the bankruptcy of the major rail carriers in the 1960s and early 1970s.[8] That collapse, which was averted by government action, would have had a traumatic impact. In the short run, more than 150,000 daily commuters would have been added to the already-clogged highways, bridges and tunnels leading to Manhattan, Newark and other employment centers. Similarly, failure to provide public funds would have brought the subway system to a halt, requiring more than 1.4 million passengers to find alternative ways to get to work. And in some parts of the region—such as Bergen and Rockland counties—government inaction in the face of mounting bus company deficits would have forced several thousand additional commuters into automobiles and onto crowded highways.

In the long run, the loss of public transit services to any sector of the region—or even a sharp decline in services—could be expected to have a major impact on the distribution of residences and jobs within the region, and also to redistribute jobs toward other, competing metropolitan regions. For example, the demise of the Long Island Rail Road would render Nassau and Suffolk counties less attractive to people employed in New York City. Some firms would respond in time by relocating to parts of the region whose labor pools could more readily be tapped by public transportation and which are more accessible by automobile. Finding their ability to relocate constrained by zoning laws, perhaps by deteriorating mass transit services in other parts of the region, and by highway patterns and congestion, firms would also tend to shift services and locations to other parts of the nation. Many offices would, for example, find relocation to Chicago, Denver or Houston attractive.

The impact of railroads and rapid transit lines in the early decentralization of the New York region is widely acknowledged by students of the urban economy, including Raymond Vernon.[9] So too, there is general acceptance of


the importance of rail facilities in the recent and future ability of Manhattan and Newark to maintain large office centers.[10]

In assessing the importance of government's role in mass transport, our differences with Vernon and Wood largely turn upon a matter of definition. Assume that government officials devise and carry out multimillion-dollar programs that resist the "economic forces at work", and the mass transportation system's basic services are thereby stabilized. We would cite such efforts as evidence that government has had a major continuing role in determining the public transportation network for the region and, through those efforts, in influencing the distribution of jobs and residences in the New York area. Wood and Vernon interpret the evidence differently: they conclude that in mass transit as in other areas, government has had little or no influence on development. Our conflicting views are not primarily caused by looking at different time periods or different facts; instead, the disagreement stems from using different standards in evaluating the role of government.

Wood and Vernon apply a severe standard in testing the impact of government mass transit policies on the pattern of regional development. To be influential, government policies must involve sustained, dependable access to public funds for mass transportation, which would lead to improved service that might attract more riders.[11] But even that would not be enough. Some increases in public funds could be expected in the coming years, but if they were to have a significant impact, they would have to be linked to a "great initiative on the part of government," a "really sharp break with the past," and "massive changes in passenger transport policy."[12] For Wood, the standard for significant influence would be government action that halted and perhaps reversed the diffusion of jobs and residences across the metropolitan hinterland. This would entail "a massive flow of public funds to support mass transit," as well as a regional organization with the power to make authoritative decisions about development throughout the New York area, and to provide funds for highway as well as rail programs only when those programs were consistent with a general plan.[13]

Since these were the criteria for success used by Vernon and Wood, it is hardly surprising that they found all government transit programs then existing or in the offing in the early 1960s to be of little importance. Continuing public financial support had been provided for the Long Island Rail Road, and funds for new equipment were available to other commuter lines, but these were but "palliative" actions. The Port Authority had agreed to spend more than $80 million on a rail project, but this did not "embrace the comprehensive coordination of modes of travel" or entail a "basic sacrifice" by the highway agencies. Therefore, such efforts were "only marginal."[14] Looking to


the future, Wood accurately foresaw increased public subsidies for public transport services, and he conjectured that transit services might in fact be expanded somewhat. But in the absence of a powerful regional planning agency and a "massive flow" of government funds to mass transit, the diffusion of jobs and residences would not be halted. In the field of mass transportation as in other program areas, therefore, "public policies are of little consequence."[15]

In our view, the Wood-Vernon test of significant government influence entails too extreme a standard. If government efforts fall short of the extraordinary requirements specified by these authors, the need for further analysis seems to be at an end. That is, one need not consider the relative usefulness of various public programs in stabilizing or modestly improving the region's transit system, or the impact that such programs may have on the region's development. Moreover, the Wood-Vernon conclusions on mass transportation again illustrate the weakness of viewing government policies as a set of activities that can be treated as separate from private market forces, with both categories being isolated from underlying consumer/voter demands. As we argued in Chapter One, in a relatively responsive democratic system, government programs will be closely intertwined with behavior in the private economy, and with underlying consumer/voter preferences. To stipulate that government's public transit programs can be considered significant only if they effectively undercut consumer preferences for suburban "diffusion," and only if they overcome the widespread public suspicion of powerful regional agencies, is to decide the question of governmental influence on urban development almost by definition.[16]

Obstacles to Governmental Action

We prefer a lower threshold of significance, and therefore a wide variety of concerns deserve close attention—the goals of public officials and private groups concerned with mass transportation, the obstacles they have faced, the extent of their successes (however modest), and the conditions that have determined patterns of success and failure.

In the first decade after World War II, the environment for public action was inhospitable and disappointing—at least to those who sought a great initiative by government to meet mass transportation problems. Problems were certainly plentiful—some left over from the public agenda of the prewar era, others newly developing or reemerging. Since the 1920s, New Jersey commuter groups had urged that new rail lines be constructed across the


Hudson, in order to reduce travel time and increase convenience for travelers from Bergen, Morris, and other New Jersey counties bound for Manhattan.[17] Then, in the early postwar years, New York City's subway system generated large deficits; and the financial condition of the commuter railroads serving the region, already weakened in the Depression, began to show signs of severe distress by the late 1940s and early 1950s.[18] Meanwhile, increasing automobile and truck congestion on the highways, caused in part by the absence of good rail and bus alternatives, led some observers to conclude that expanded mass transit service was essential for continued regional mobility and economic growth.[19]

In the arena of highway policy—described in Chapter Six—when congestion and financial constraints were identified as "highway problems" in the early 1950s, the general direction for a solution seemed clear, and within a few years a detailed strategy had been devised and a massive response was underway. It seemed evident that more highways, bridges, and tunnels were needed; responsibility for action lay in the hands of government; and new taxes and a special trust fund were created to finance the extensive federal-aid highway program begun in 1956.

In the mass transit field, in contrast, no consensus emerged from the early discussions regarding the general approach to be followed or where responsibility for action lay, and prompt action did not follow. There were several difficulties in this policy arena. First, while road building was historically a government function, rail and bus service traditionally had been the responsibility of private entrepreneurs.[20] Except for New York City's subway system, mass transit services were still provided in the early postwar years by private "profit-making" corporations. The governmental role was essentially passive, with state and federal regulatory commissions reviewing (and accept-


ing or rejecting) proposals by rail and bus corporations to alter fares and service. There was no set of public officials with a mandate to act more directly in defining and proposing solutions to the growing mass transit problem, no recent history of public action that would lead the general public to expect government to take the initiative in this field, and no readily available source of public funds to underwrite mass transportation.

Closely related to the tradition of government non-responsibility was the fragmentation of government authority in the New York region. Rail and bus routes crossed municipal, county and state lines, and the fractionalization of formal and informal governmental power was even greater than in the highway field. Rail transport had no counterpart to the integrating efforts of Robert Moses with his many hats, or the Port Authority with its bistate jurisdiction. Moreover, because federal and state government efforts in the rail and bus field were essentially regulatory and passive, there was even less incentive for—and little tradition of—cooperative effort among relevant state and national public agencies.

In fact, the governmental and private groups in the New York region concerned with mass transportation were a remarkably motley crew, with limited political resources and an unpromising future. User interests were represented by the commuter organizations of North Jersey, Long Island, and Westchester, whose efforts to improve mass transportation and to involve the Port Authority in rail enterprises extended back to the 1920s. Yet by the early 1950s, these associations—the Inter-Municipal Group for Better Rail Service, the Transit Committee of Bergen County, the Westchester Commuters Group, and others—were devoting most of their energies to campaigns simply to save existing services. Thus they were caught up in continual rearguard action—with statements to the press and at regulatory hearings that did little more than resist efforts by the railroads to curtail service and increase fares.[21]

The suburban railroads were far more interested in reducing or abandoning service on deficit-producing passenger lines than in improving mass transit. Rail spokesmen occasionally did argue that additional rail facilities were needed, and some urged the Port Authority and other highway agencies to help meet mass transportation needs. But their understandable concern with corporate solvency led railroad officials to adopt an essentially negative stance—cutting services and increasing fares, rather than devising imaginative programs of transportation improvement.[22]

Then there were the business and civic interests that were anxious to maintain mass transportation services to New York City, Newark, and other downtown locations. Most of those active in this group were Manhattan-based associations which saw rail service stability as essential to the economic strength and dominance of the Manhattan CBD. A few viewed improved rail and bus service as part of a complex strategy for improving economic health and living patterns in the region as a whole. In the conflict between the railroads and commuter organizations, some of the civic-group spokesmen were sympathetic to the economic plight of rail corporations and their desire


to reduce deficit-producing services. Others agreed with suburban commuters that existing services should be maintained, while the search continued for other sources of funds to save public transportation.[23]

In contrast to the highway coalition, then, the private interests concerned with mass transit policies differed greatly among themselves as to short-run priorities and long-run goals. They did not produce a coherent set of constituency demands that legislative committees and other government agencies would be compelled to weigh carefully as representing an agreed-upon program of action. Consequently the efforts of the rail interests to obtain effective government action were severely handicapped. The underlying problem—the limited ability of governmental actors to shape urban development when confronted by diverse constituency pressures—is one we have seen before, in the Chapter Four discussion of environmentalism and highways in the 1970s. We will see it again in the analysis of the older cities in the next two chapters.

Moreover, in contrast to the widespread and growing use of automobiles, the most directly involved constituency—the users of mass transit service—comprised a small percentage of the region's population, and in the case of rail commuters a declining proportion as well. Between 1930 and 1952, automobile registration in the three states increased sharply, while railroad commuter traffic dropped by 25 to 60 percent. By 1952, trans-Hudson commuters from North Jersey who used mass transit comprised just over 3 percent of the population of the nine northeastern counties, with more than one-third of this fraction relying on bus rather than rail. The proportion was somewhat higher in the Westchester-Connecticut sector, and highest on Long Island, where LIRR commuters made up just over 5 percent of the Island's burgeoning population. When non-rush-hour rail travel was added, the Long Island total rose, but only to 8 percent.[24]

Of course the number of residents potentially affected by mass transportation was far larger than the modest number who made regular use of the region's rail and bus services. As noted earlier in this chapter, the loss of public transit services, especially in commuter hours, would lead to massive highway congestion, and probably to long-run changes in residential and commercial location patterns that would be traumatic for Long Island, West-chester, and some North Jersey areas. Yet there was no widespread sense of concern on the part of the general public, because the main rail and bus services continued, even while some of the carriers slid toward bankruptcy. Throughout the first postwar decade, the commuters and their local communities found they could rely on their state utility commissions to resist the


railroads' efforts to raise fares and reduce the frequency of service.[25] Fares did creep upward and both the quality and frequency of service declined, but only slowly, incrementally, while most of the region's populace looked on, complacently.

Those who favored governmental action to aid mass transportation faced not only public indifference, but active opposition as well from some members of the highway coalition. In the view of Robert Moses and his colleagues, government funds for urban and intercity transport should be funneled primarily into roads, not rail; and the planning and construction of new highway systems should go forward without any attempt to coordinate road and rail facilities. Local taxes paid by the railroads might be "scaled down," and subsidies to meet crises might even be provided from general government funds. However, any attempts to redirect the flow of moneys from highways and bridges, or to tie highway development to broader transportation planning goals, were vigorously opposed.

Underlying the resistance of the highway agencies and their supporters to involvement in mass transportation was the fear that the deteriorating rail services were a "bottomless pit" whose voracious needs for additional funds would destroy the ability of the Port Authority, Triborough, and their fellow road agencies to maintain their freedom of action, bountiful resources, and political independence—and thus their ability to build new bridges, tunnels, and highways.[26]

Despite these obstacles, the first postwar decade was not a period of inactivity in the mass transit field. Indeed, some significant action did take place: a new transit authority took over operation of bus and rail services in New York City; the state intervened to support the Long Island Rail Road; and state governments in Albany and Trenton created a joint commission to draw up a long-range program for the New York region.[27] However, these efforts also illustrated the weaknesses identified above—in governmental structure and leadership, in program goals, financing, and constituency support—and left the major problems unresolved.

Responding to a Transit Crisis in New York City

In New York City, government had been involved in construction and operation of rail transit services since the turn of the century, and by the early 1940s the city's Board of Transportation had responsibility for subways, elevated railways, and bus services throughout most of the city.[28] Although lim-


ired to New York City, the operation was immense: The board served several million passengers each weekday over hundreds of miles of rail and bus routes. In spite of heavy usage and large city subsidies from its general tax coffers, however, deficits mounted during the first postwar decade, and additional funds were needed to meet operating expenses and finance new construction.

The city government believed these needs should be met without raising the fare; higher fares, it was argued, would increase the diversion of riders to private automobiles, especially during non-rush hours, thus adding to traffic congestion while providing little net gain in total revenues at the fare box. Moreover, increased fares would be particularly burdensome to the city's lower-income residents—who might take out their resentment against the city fathers at the ballot box.

In weighing these factors, city officials were, of course, considering mass transit policy in the context of other policy goals. But their ability to translate this broader perspective into action was sharply constrained. Except for increased fares, the two major sources of possible funds to meet transit needs were (1) siphoning off toll revenues from the Triborough and other highway authorities, and (2) increasing general tax levels within the city. State laws creating the highway authorities had placed the first option beyond the reach of city officials, unless the state consented—an unlikely prospect, particularly in view of the adamant opposition of Moses and his colleagues. And the second option would have required the state to grant additional taxing authority to New York City.[29]

Governor Dewey and the state legislature rejected both of these alternatives, and instead in 1953 replaced the Board of Transportation with a new Transit Authority which was organized to provide a stronger financial base for mass transportation in New York City. The new authority was required to meet its operating expenses from its own revenues, and would be able to increase fares as expenses rose. Yet the Transit Authority was given no borrowing power, so final responsibility for funding capital improvement still rested with New York City. This effort to "solve" the city's transit crisis by relying on the fare box and local tax funds failed as deficits mounted in subsequent years. However, Albany's intervention provided a precedent for still deeper state involvement in the region's mass transportation quagmire.[30]

A Railroad Is "Practically Reborn"

Meanwhile, the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) tottered on the edge of disaster. The region's preeminent commuter rail carrier in terms of passengers


per year, the LIRR steadily lost traffic to the expanding highway network in the postwar years, entering bankruptcy in 1949. A study commission appointed in 1950 by Governor Thomas Dewey recommended that a state authority be created to purchase and operate the railroad, but that proposal was rejected in Albany as the "road to socialism." Instead, state officials sought ways to continue the floundering line under private ownership. Finally, in a much-heralded state effort that departed from traditional passive state regulation, the LIRR was restructured in 1954 as a private "railroad redevelopment corporation" and given tax concessions, unusual freedom in setting fares, and other assistance which—state officials argued—would permit the railroad to emerge by 1966 as a self-sufficient private rail carrier. In the words of its publicists, the LIRR was "practically reborn" as the result of this plan,[31] but in reality the program was so modest that only a very optimistic observer could expect it to succeed, particularly if the competing highway system on Long Island continued to expand. By the early 1960s declining passenger traffic, deteriorating service, and new deficits would force wary state officials to embrace public ownership as advocated by the Dewey Commission in 1951.

Toward Broader Regional Action

Beyond these halting efforts to meet short-term crises, there were some attempts during the first postwar years to identify broader goals and strategies—concerned with stabilizing and improving rail and bus services across the region, and with planning that included both highway and mass transportation programs. The Regional Plan Association urged that a "balanced transportation system" be developed. Goodhue Livingston of the New York City Planning Commission publicly advocated creation of a regional transportation authority to take control of the funds and duties of Triborough, the Port Authority's bridges and tunnels, New York City's buses and subways, and the Long Island Rail Road. Other public officials and private groups took similar positions.[32]

The most important action generated by this broader concern was the creation of the Metropolitan Rapid Transit Commission (MRTC) by New Jersey and New York in 1954. The bistate agency was empowered to study the region's transit problems and to recommend action to meet existing needs. In its initial meetings, the commission interpreted its mandate broadly, to include an analysis of rail and bus problems, and the preparation of a general plan for transportation development for the region.

The obstacles to an extensive study of this kind, however, were considerable. The states had set up the commission, but their support was more rhetorical than substantive. A program of action was needed, they agreed, but the $50,000 appropriated by each state was barely enough to hire a small staff, much less begin a comprehensive study. Behind this lukewarm support lay a


basic political weakness: the regional transit problem had only limited constituency appeal. East of the Hudson, New York City's leaders were concerned primarily with the subway problem, and Long Island's officials had exhausted their energies in seeking state action for the LIRR. There was greater concern in Westchester and New Jersey, but no sense of crisis impelled local residents to press for larger appropriations. Moreover, the MRTC study was not directed to meeting current emergencies but toward long-range solutions.[33]

In addition, the goal of the commission—comprehensiveness in transportation planning and financing—was viewed with mixed feelings in Trenton and Albany. Would it mean, for New Jersey, direct involvement in the massive financial problems of the New York subway system? Would state officials in Albany find their ability to meet "their own" problems handicapped by the need to negotiate with Hudson County politicians and contentious leaders of other local fiefdoms? And beyond these themes of fragmented perspective, the states—and especially the governors—wondered if they really wanted to grasp the nettle of mass transportation leadership. If the MRTC did carry out a comprehensive study and recommended long-range solutions, it seemed inevitable that the pressures for action would flow to the governor's office—whether to appropriate large amounts of state funds, or to battle Robert Moses and a phalanx of Port Authority experts and their fellow highway coalition leaders. The lessons of the recent LIRR and Transit Authority struggles, and of skirmishes over the years with Moses and his friends, were that the costs of such active leadership might well outweigh the benefits.

Finally, the commission itself—composed of five members appointed by each governor—was internally divided as to its purposes. Some commissioners were deeply devoted to the goal of comprehensiveness in study and, ultimately, in action. But other commission members had reservations. A comprehensive study would require larger funding than seemed likely. Also, a wide-ranging approach would surely lead to conflict with the highway coalition. An MRTC program that called for integrated planning and funding might result in no action at all, in view of the impressive influence of highway leaders in both states. For MRTC's more cautious members, the better part of valor would be a study focused on feasible ways of providing public support to meet growing commuter rail deficits, and on possible new rail construction—without a direct attempt to confront the "rail versus road" issue.

These weaknesses in political support, financing, and internal cohesion made the MRTC highly vulnerable to outside influence. The organization most interested in shaping the commission's efforts was the Port Authority. While fashioning its joint arterial studies with Robert Moses into a public relations success in 1954–1955, the Port Authority was dismayed by the public pronouncements of some MRTC members, who argued that highway expansion had caused rail-service deterioration, and that "grandiose" road plans should be halted until the MRTC completed its study. As a bistate agency like the MRTC, the Port Authority was the most explicit object of commission criticism. Moreover, it was directly involved in two decisions, made in 1954,


not to provide opportunities for rail transit by excluding rail lines on the Narrows Bridge and on the lower deck of the George Washington Bridge.[34] As a wealthy and politically skilled agency, the authority also had the resources needed to neutralize the commission. Thus the Port Authority offered the financially strapped study group a half million dollars to conduct its surveys—if the commission agreed to exclude from the studies any work on a general plan for rail and road facilities, and if the authority were given joint policy control over the surveys. With no other source of funds available, the commission accepted.[35]

Thus the widely heralded comprehensive study became instead a detailed analysis of possible ways to improve the financing and quality of rail service. The commission's final report in January 1958 proposed the creation of a bistate Transit District, supported by local tax revenues. The district's taxpayers would absorb the deficits of the region's passenger railroads, and meet the costs of a proposed bistate rail loop and other improvements. The proposal was endorsed by Manhattan business and civic groups, New York City newspapers, and some commuter groups in New York, where the philosophy of local tax support for rail was already wellaccepted due to the local financial assistance long provided to the city's rapid transit system.

The district bill was forwarded to Albany and quickly passed, in March 1958. In New Jersey, however, as noted in Chapter Five, these proposals were received with less than wild enthusiasm, as widespread aversion to local tax support for rail facilities was combined with suspicion that the proposed improvements would mainly benefit Manhattan. The subject of acrimonious hearings in the state assembly in November 1958, the district bill succumbed a few weeks later. So the attempt to devise a comprehensive regional program, begun rather promisingly in the early 1950s, died finally in early 1959, a casualty of the three-way conflict among the advocates of regional planning and mass transit improvement, the road coalition, and local spokesmen who were wary of the costs and loss of autonomy that might result from a regional effort.[36]


Elements of a Solution: Realistic and Otherwise

There was a certain air of unreality about the mass transit debate as it was carried on throughout the first postwar decade and extended into the late 1950s.

On the one hand, some state officials and other government leaders assured the public that tax concessions and other modest measures would enable the bankrupt LIRR to emerge as a healthy private carrier, that creation of a transit authority would provide a long-term solution for the subway system, that the commuter railroads could survive if they kept their fares low and thus attracted more traffic, and that long-range solutions to the region's transit needs could be found through reliance upon that "horn of plenty" called the Port Authority. In the absence of widespread crisis that would compel action by elected leaders, it was far easier for state officials to describe such half-measures as "solutions," to avoid direct responsibility, and to utilize their own limited time and funds on other state problems and programs.

The most articulate advocates of better mass transportation and coordinated development took a very different view, but they rarely paused to weigh feasibility or compare notes on priorities. Three major elements of a strategy for solving mass transit problems were sounded by these partisans, and then amplified by the press so that they set the framework for reformist thought during this period:

1. Any government action, if it were to be effective, must be broad in areal scope. It was argued that the problems of the LIRR and the subway system were intertwined,[37] that the New Haven and New York Central lines would soon face financial difficulties similar to those of the LIRR, and that the several New Jersey railroads, already in financial straits, might be able to retain passenger traffic if they could be extended into Manhattan with transfer stops on the subway system. But to those who held these views, such as the New York Times and the MRTC, the answer was not to use existing centers of government power—for example, at the state capitals—to provide leadership and funding to meet these interrelated regional problems. Instead, a new layer of government, embracing a dozen or more counties in two or three states, should be created, and through this imaginative approach would come salvation—once interstate rivalries and taxpayer suspicion had evaporated, and vigorous leadership at the new regional level had emerged.[38]

2. Planning and coordination should be "comprehensive intermodally," encompassing rail and bus, truck and automobile, and taking into account the relationship between changes in rail and highway services, on the one hand, and patterns of land use in the region, on the other. Analytically, this was a reasonable position, in view of the evidence that changes in any one of these


areas strongly affected program needs in the others.[39] As the argument was applied to the New York region, however, it was often extended beyond the bounds of political feasibility and perhaps of intellectual defensibility. Thus one prominent critic advocated as the first step toward a solution the creation of a Regional Transportation Authority to control all rail and road facilities—and all existing transport authorities—in the metropolitan area. The new agency would at once place tolls on all toll-free bridges, thus diverting passenger traffic to rail lines.[40] Perhaps extremism in the service of good planning was no moral vice, but it surely left the mass transit advocates vulnerable to the barbs of skeptics and opponents. As Robert Moses commented in 1953, reviewing the arguments for region-wide and intermodal coordination through new public agencies:

There are always those who glibly advocate an official, all-powerful regional agency to take over these problems on the curious assumption that difficulties will disappear with regional consolidation. . . . Putting all of the problems into a big new shiny basket is just a way of hastening their trip to the dump heap or the incinerator.[41]

3. The third crucial element of a program to meet the region's mass transit needs was, of course, money. Not just modest tax concessions, not simply funds to eliminate grade crossings, but a sustained inflow of millions of dollars to meet the deficits of the New York subways, the Hudson tubes, and the region's eight private rail carriers. By the mid-1950s, the total yearly deficit had reached nearly $100 million; and to this might be added additional millions to replace old commuter cars and modestly improve the quality of service on the rail lines, subways, and government-owned bus lines—thus stemming the loss of commuters and other passengers to automobiles.

That kind of money quickly catches the attention of governors and other elected officials, who as quickly move out of the line of fire, hoping that their terms of office will end before any sizable mass transit burden is laid at their political doorsteps. But even $100 million strikes no sparks in the heart of a mass transit evangelist, if such sums yield no dramatic new projects to fire the mind. For those who would put their personal stamp on the future—for rail-builders as for road-builders—larger sums, to achieve visible and enduring results on the scale of a Narrows Bridge or a World Trade Center, are needed. To the members of the MRTC, their "Narrows Bridge" was a $350 million rail tunnel and transit line, joining the New Jersey railroad systems to a new subway line under Manhattan. For others, a modern passenger rail terminal in Manhattan, with new tunnels to bring all


New Jersey trains directly into the terminal, would fit the imagination if not the pocketbook.[42]

How could such sums be secured? A central element of the rail coalition's response—especially after the defeat of the Transit District bill (with its reliance on local taxes)—was "pooling." That is, funds generated by rail and road agencies would be pooled, and then used by the new metropolitan authority or other agencies to meet needs which, under a general plan, had highest priority. In reality, this would mean (in their view) that excess revenues from the Port Authority, Triborough, and other highway agencies would be siphoned off to meet the deficits of rail and bus operations.

Even without dramatic new construction, the potential bill for mass transit needs would be large enough to block achievement of the roadbuilders' own dreams. To protect their interests, the road agencies sought to discredit the pooling concept by emphasizing the gigantic total costs involved. Thus in 1958, confronting New Jersey legislators anxious to bring Port Authority money and skill to bear on the rail problem, Austin Tobin generously estimated the region's mass transit deficits at $150 million a year. Tobin thought it was "awfully clear that the Port Authority couldn't assume one little part of this . . . without assuming it all."

Behind the Tobin smokescreen was an element of real concern. Admittedly, neither the Port Authority, nor Triborough, nor the New Jersey Turnpike Authority could absorb the entire transit deficit, but it would be financially feasible for any one of these agencies to absorb part of the total. When combined with other state and federal moneys, such contributions might provide enough funds to achieve modest goals if not grand plans for mass transit. But the platform of the mass transit advocates—large amounts of money, intermodal planning, and regionwide scope—did not direct the attention of elected officials toward smaller, more manageable increments. Tobin and his colleagues eagerly accepted this monumental frame of reference, insisting that any attempt to force the authorities to meet large deficits and carry out grandiose plans would simply put an end to these paragons of "nonpolitical corporate management" which had served the region's development needs so well.[43] The result, as the decade of the 1950s drew to a close, was continuing division and debate, deteriorating mass transit service, and no feasible plan of action.

Steps Toward Stability

What was needed, hindsight suggests, was a crisis severe enough to alter the major variables that prevented effective action by officials in the tristate region. By 1958, such a crisis was conveniently at hand in the form of massive


railroad deficits and heightened concern in Washington about the weakened financial situation of the nation's railroads.[44]

During the first dozen postwar years (1946–1957), rail freight traffic declined nationally, while passenger deficits increased to five times their 1946 level. It seemed evident to railroad officials, and to the U.S. Interstate Commerce Commission, that most of the rail systems serving the New York area would soon go bankrupt unless they could move quickly to curtail passenger service, especially on lightly used lines. However, efforts to reduce service often required the approval of state utility commissions, and these agencies—whose officials were sensitive to opposition from suburban commuters and town officials—commonly delayed and sometimes rejected railroad appeals. By the spring of 1958 there was widespread sentiment in Congress to alter existing federal statutes so that rail corporations could more quickly discontinue interstate service—with ICC approval required, but without necessarily holding a hearing—and so that intrastate trains could be eliminated with ICC approval, even if state regulatory commissions were opposed. A bill embodying these provisions, titled the Transportation Act of 1958, was enacted in July and signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. As soon as the law was signed, the New York Central and the Erie railroads initiated action to end their trans-Hudson commuter services, and soon the other commuter railroads threatened to cut service sharply and even eliminate all passenger services.

Although state and regional leaders had taken little interest in the federal bill, the 1958 act significantly altered the political channels through which mass transportation policy was shaped. The railroads' perennial threats to discontinue rail service now became real. As a result, the number of constituents demanding action to preserve rail service expanded and the intensity of their pressure greatly increased. Because of the collapse of the MRTC effort, and the weakness of the Metropolitan Regional Council and regional leadership generally (described in Chapter Five), the demands for action focused on the states and especially on the three governors. The response in Albany, Trenton, and Hartford varied in enthusiasm and in program details. None met the high standards for influence on urban development required by the WoodVernon approach. Nevertheless, all three states devised programs that moved appreciably toward the major goals of the mass transit planners and which, while modest, had the merit of being feasible.

First, the obstacle of areal fragmentation in the region was substantially overcome by state leadership. State transportation offices were created to prepare commuter programs extending across all counties within each state's sector of the New York region. These programs were not, however, predicated on the need for agreement on common plans between two or all three states. The initiative was taken by Nelson Rockefeller, shortly after his 1958 election as governor of New York. In breaking free from the search for interstate agreements, Rockefeller asserted that rail problems should be solved by "each state taking action itself," while cooperating across state lines where possible. His pronouncement dismayed some regional spokesmen, for it seemed in conflict


with the search for a truly areawide solution advocated by the RPA, the New York Times, and MRC leaders. However, Rockefeller's approach was congruent with the areal pattern of effective political power. Regional bodies could only debate and urge action; state officials could define new policies, allocate resources, and implement programs.

Aided by increased constituency demand, and utilizing a modicum of political skill, Rockefeller channeled new funds to mass transit. The railroads were given significant amounts of tax relief, in a package that also offered assistance to bus lines throughout the state—thus attracting support from upstate legislators not notably sympathetic to New York City and the suburban counties.[45] In addition, the governor and his aides breached the Port Authority wall, finally persuading that reluctant dragon to help meet the state's rail needs.

In the fall of 1958, the Port Authority had told the New Jersey legislature that the authority had "nothing more to contribute" to solving the transit problem. Less than six months later, the Port Authority announced that it was "quite pleased" to help by purchasing rail commuter cars and leasing them to the state's passenger carriers. Between these two statements, the authority's leaders had reluctantly accepted Rockefeller's demand that the bistate agency reverse its traditional position against taking any direct responsibility in the rail passenger field. The authority's contribution would be modest; it would administer the program, but the leases on the new railroad cars would be backed by state guarantees. Even so, the program was a first step in developing direct ties between the highway coalition and the region's rail systems.[46]

New Jersey's Governor Meyner was less inclined to exert leadership, but through the energy and skill of his chief advisers the Garden State also began to respond to the commuter crisis. An initial plan, devised in the spring of 1959, would have tapped the surplus of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority to meet rail and bus deficits. But this attack on the "integrity" of highway coalition funds, and on the image of an independent authority, proved too early and too direct. Automobile and highway interests counterattacked, and the Turnpike-surplus plan went down to resounding defeat in a statewide referendum in November of 1959.[47] The plan did, however, produce two cracks in the common front of the highway coalition, as the state's highway commissioner, Dwight Palmer, devised the proposal, and the Port Authority—seeing that the program would divert pressure from its own door—broke ranks and informally supported the Turnpike plan.

The following year, as continued railroad threats to end passenger service produced increasing concern in the commuting suburbs, state officials in Trenton developed two programs that provided a basis for long-term stability of essential mass transit services. The first was a plan to give state funds directly to private carriers, in return for contracts in which the railroads


would agree to maintain specified schedules of trains and fares. The legislature endorsed the plan in the spring of 1960 and provided $6 million to cover costs for the first year. During the fall, service contracts were negotiated with all major New Jersey rail carriers.

The second proposal forced the Port Authority to confront a future it had hoped to avoid—as a railroad owner and operator. After the Turnpike plan collapsed, commissioner Palmer pressed the port agency to use its own funds to provide new cars for the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad—a heavily used passenger line that ran between Newark, Hudson County, and Manhattan. The Port Authority might have fought the proposal vigorously, but in 1960 its officials viewed their position as unusually vulnerable. The failure of the Transit District proposal and the Turnpike plan had brought the authority under renewed attack for its "crass indifference" to the railroad crisis. Moreover, the Port Authority's plan to build a jetport in suburban Morris County (described in Chapter Four) had sparked vigorous opposition to the agency in North Jersey.

So the Port Authority reluctantly negotiated with Palmer, and by 1961 a plan had been hammered out which enmeshed the authority more deeply in the rail problem, but also protected the bistate agency from additional responsibilities for mass transit. The centerpiece of the plan was purchase of the H&M Railroad by the authority, which would modernize and operate the line. In return, the two states agreed that the Port Authority could undertake other rail activities only if the total annual deficit from all its rail operations would not exceed 10 percent of the Authority's general reserve fund. Since the H&M deficit seemed likely to rise close to that level, the agreement meant that the authority would be protected from future attempts to force it to operate other rail passenger services. Officials of both states argued that this absolute limitation was needed so the authority would be able to sell bonds for this and other future projects. "It gets down to how badly we need the H&M," Palmer declared. "Do we want it on the investors' terms or not at all?" The states wanted the H&M, and after a further round of negotiations, which included state approval for authority construction of the World Trade Center, the plan was approved in Trenton and Albany in the spring of 1962—and the H&M became the Port Authority Trans-Hudson rail system (PATH).[48]

In the early 1960s a few steps were taken that were consistent with the mass transit coalition's goals of regionwide planning, intermodal coordination, and greater financial resources. First, bringing Connecticut at last into the fold, state officials created the Tri-State Transportation Committee to review and coordinate highway and transit funding in the New York region.[49] The original impetus for such an agency had come from the RPA and the MRC, which sought a planning body to include representatives of local gov-


Map 8

ernments throughout the region and of the three states. When Tri-State was formed by the three governors in 1961, however, its membership underscored the state-dominant pattern of leadership: of the original thirteen committee members, twelve were state appointees, with one allocated to New York City. On paper, at least, the new agency therefore seemed to provide a useful channel to shape state action to broader regional needs. As indicated in Chapter Five, Tri-State's role has largely been "on paper"—limited to producing reports that monitor development trends in the region, rather than shaping those patterns.

The rail crisis also prompted halting steps toward financial aid and a regional perspective for mass transit, in the place where the crisis had been set in motion—the halls of Congress. After the first months of turmoil that followed passage of the 1958 Transportation Act, a small group of northeastern congressmen—led by Senator Harrison Williams of New Jersey—counter-attacked. In 1960, Williams introduced a bill to provide $100 million in fed-


eral loans for mass transit facilities, gathered support from central city mayors across the country, from railroad presidents, and from such civic groups as the Regional Plan Association, and within a year obtained passage of the first federal aid ever provided for urban transit services. Enacted as part of the Housing Act of 1961, the new law authorized $75 million in federal loans for transit improvements in urban areas, and additional planning funds to be allotted in connection with "comprehensive" approaches toward solving problems of traffic congestion and other transportation problems on a regional basis. Although the funds were modest, the perspective was broad, prompting the RPA to commend it as "pioneering legislation." While the new legislation did not directly challenge the autonomy of the highway coalition, it echoed the basic ideology of the RPA and the MRTC commissioners of the early 1950s, and augured greater federal intervention in a not-too-distant future.[50]

By the early 1960s, therefore, state and federal officials had moved the mass transit problem to a higher position in the catalog of demands for vigorous governmental action. However, the new policies still did not meet the standards of those who championed regional transportation planning and development. The Regional Plan Association viewed the state efforts as no more than "stop-gap programs" which were "keeping commuter service alive [but] do little to promote a future system" that could provide better service and be less costly to maintain. And the New York Times termed the programs "piecemeal," while urging in their place a "unified multi-state attack."[51]

If the views of advocates of comprehensive regional schemes seemed unalloyed by political realism, some political leaders were expressing hopes that seemed equally devoid of economic realism. Even after the New Haven had slid into bankruptcy, and as deficits rose on the LIRR and other rail lines, state officials looked wistfully to a future in which government action might be less crucial to the survival of the region's mass transit system. In 1964, William Ronan, Rockefeller's chief transportation policy adviser, attacked a report that urged public ownership as the best solution to providing commuter service east of the Hudson. Ronan argued that the new public programs had helped the railroads to "improve commuter service and lower costs," and that the economics of commuter service would "continue to improve," permitting private ownership of such major commuter lines as the New Haven and the New York Central to endure.[52]

Dramatic Changes and an Elusive Goal

Ronan's optimism was short-lived. He soon found himself deeply involved in a new Rockefeller initiative to save the New Haven, New York


Central and Long Island railroads—this time through public ownership and operation. In New York State, and in New Jersey as well, government's role in preventing collapse, in stabilizing, and in improving rail and bus service in the region has steadily deepened and widened since the early 1960s. New policies hammered out in Washington have been joined with state programs to alter, sometimes quite strikingly, the organization of transport programs and the criteria for action. Yet the broadest planning and financing goals enunciated by the Regional Plan Association and its fellow regional travelers remain unfulfilled, providing a time-honored banner to be unfurled in the editorial pages of the Times and in RPA bulletins, as the region's mass transit system lurches fitfully into a modest future.

In the following sections we explore the search during the 1960s and 1970s for solutions to the mass transportation problem, concentrating on changes in areal and functional scope of public institutions, and on the ways that leadership skills, funds, and other resources have been concentrated so that public officials could maintain transit services in the New York area. Our main focus is on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a 12-county agency established by New York State in 1968. More briefly, we examine efforts to enlarge the Port Authority's role in maintaining trans-Hudson commuter facilities. Intertwined with these activities are the efforts of the federal government, which has played an increasingly important role in financing and shaping public efforts to meet the region's mass transit problems.

Creating a Regional Transit Agency

Despite William Ronan's professed optimism in 1964, it seemed clear that significant new initiatives would be required if the region's commuter rail services were to be kept alive. In the world of the ideal planner, the rational approach might involve combining all major rail and road facilities under one institution, embracing those portions of the region in all three states. In the world of political reality, however, even the innovator with a grand design moves slowly, incrementally, using short-term crises as opportunities to extend his power, then pausing to negotiate with potential opponents who might resist a broader role—until, drawing their fangs or lulling them to unwary sleep, he pounces.

Or, to alter the metaphor: For the political innovator, the adroit use of the "camel's nose" strategy is often the sine qua non of skilled leadership. The "camel's nose" is the first step in a large new government program; being small, it may seem acceptable to legislators and the public, while if the true long-term costs—the entire camel—were seen at the outset, opposition would widen and the first step might never be taken.[53]

The evolution of New York State's role in mass transit between 1964 and 1968 illustrates these political strategies fairly well. The first step was to save the Long Island Rail Road, which had been operating since 1954 under a special program of state aid. For several years public officials lived under the


Map 9

hope—or perhaps it was always an illusion—that the LIRR would emerge in 1966 at the end of the twelve-year program as a healthy private rail carrier. Even with tax relief and other concessions, however, the LIRR operated at a deficit or barely broke even in the early 1960s, and the modernization efforts proceeded very slowly.

By 1964, Governor Rockefeller was forced to recognize that more drastic action would be required, and he appointed Ronan, his chief transportation adviser, to head a study committee. Reporting to the governor early in 1965, the Ronan committee recommended that the state purchase the LIRR and create a new public authority (the Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Authority) to operate the rail line and carry out a wide-ranging modernization program. In order to spread the costs, and thus make the plan more palatable to the state legislature, the railroad would be purchased with state funds (but for far less than the "$2 billion in new highways that would be required . . . if the LIRR should cease to exist"), the costs of station maintenance would be met by the counties served by the railroad, and it was hoped that "much if not all" of the


$200 million improvement program would be financed under the federal mass transit program. The camel's nose was not small, but at least there seemed to be several tents. And to avoid objections from the still-influential highway coalition, no mention was made of tapping toll revenues of the Triborough Authority, whose bridges and tunnels directly competed with the LIRR for passengers bound for Manhattan.[54]

Rockefeller had been actively involved in shaping the plan, and he immediately endorsed the report. A bill to create the MCTA was introduced and quickly approved by the state legislature.[55] While the main emphasis of the Rockefeller-Ronan plan was the need to meet the immediate crisis on the LIRR, the bill empowered the new authority to develop plans ensuring the continuation of other commuter rail services in the New York region. The legislation also reflected Rockefeller's interest in exerting strong state leadership in this field. Despite local demands for a role in setting MCTA policy, all five members of the new authority's board were to be appointed by the governor. And the first chairman would be William Ronan.

During the next two years, the state bought the LIRR for $65 million and began negotiations with officials of the New Haven and New York Central, where mounting deficits again threatened the termination of passenger services.

Meanwhile, the financial and the physical condition of the city's subway system continued to deteriorate, demonstrating the limited effectiveness of the 1953 Transit Authority scheme. As Republican candidate for mayor of New York City in the fall of 1965, John Lindsay made the local transportation problem one of his major targets, criticizing past city and state actions, and promising that he would press for coordinated planning and financing of rail and highway developments in the city. Soon after his election, Lindsay had legislation introduced in Albany to extend the Rockefeller-Ronan initiatives dramatically by merging the Transit Authority and Triborough. Lindsay's bill would also give the mayor power to appoint a majority of the new governing board's members.

The Lindsay plan, which promised policy coordination for mass transit and highways, as well as a flow of funds from Triborough to the subway system, was enthusiastically endorsed by the New York Times .[56] It was also


condemned, with even greater energy and effectiveness, by Robert Moses, the investment banking community, the automobile associations, leaders of the construction unions (whose regard for Moses and concern for a continuing flow of highway construction jobs were legendary), the existing members of the Transit Authority (whose jobs would be abolished by the Lindsay bill), and Democratic legislative leaders in the state capital.[57]

Against this phalanx, Lindsay's proposal met a quick and bloody death in the state legislature. However, Lindsay's actions exposed and underscored important weaknesses in Rockefeller's leadership. During his first gubernatorial campaign in 1958, and extending through his LIRR purchase plan of 1964–1965, Rockefeller had built a reputation for initiative and vigorous action in meeting mass transportation needs. But behind the rhetoric of leadership, the creation of the MCTA, and its efforts to stabilize commuter service, the reality was troubling. All the commuter railroads in the region and the city's vast subway system were in deep financial difficulties; and federal funds needed to help modernize these rail lines might not be forth-coming in large amounts. Upstate legislators would be wary of pouring more state money into the New York region's transit morass. And now Lindsay's vigorous campaign threatened to displace the ambitious governor as the acknowledged leader—in the Empire State and nationally—in dealing with urban transportation problems.

Meanwhile, Moses sat atop Triborough's surplus: millions of dollars a year that could be used to stabilize and improve rail services—and to bolster Rockefeller's reputation as an innovative problem solver. Moses himself was a contender for leadership; his pronouncements on urban transport always received wide publicity, and even now, in 1966, his engineers were preparing a report on highway and mass transit needs for the New York region.[58] Moreover, the history of relationships between Rockefeller and Moses suggested that Triborough's leader would always maintain a certain unruly independence.[59]

Could these problems be converted into opportunities, enabling Rocke-feller to reassert his central leadership role? The governor thought so, and by the first days of 1967 he was ready to set in motion a three-pronged attack. First, he announced plans to combine state highway activities (then under the Department of Public Works) with mass transport in a new Department of Transportation, symbolizing the need for a coordinated approach. The new agency would then formulate a statewide plan for a "truly balanced" transpor-


tation system. Second, he proposed a $2.5 billion bond issue for "major capital investments in mass transportation systems" and highway arteries. Sensitive to upstate interests, his message to the legislature emphasized that these billions would meet "urgent needs . . . in the rural areas, the towns, the villages, the suburban and city areas of our state." Buses as well as rail lines would be aided by the state's program. And to meet the concerns of influential northern legislators, a Niagara transportation authority would be created to organize transport improvements in the northwestern portion of the state.[60]

The third part of Rockefeller's program incorporated the Lindsay proposal to combine Triborough and the Transit Authority and added the MCTA to create a new Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). In urging that the MCTA be broadened to include both of the city agencies, the governor emphasized that this would assure "unified regional policy direction."

A central element of Rockefeller's plan, as it had been of Lindsay's, was the capture of Triborough's surpluses to subsidize mass transportation. The challenge was to overcome the legal and political obstacles that stopped the Lindsay scheme in 1966, and that had sharply limited access to Port Authority surpluses in the 1962 covenant. Rockefeller's advisers thought they could see a route to legislative approval—if a way to protect the bondholders could be devised, and if Moses could be persuaded to approve the new plan, thus muting opposition from the banking community, and from Moses's allies in the construction unions and the automobile associations.[61]

Moses was no longer a young man. In December 1966 he had celebrated his seventy-eighth birthday. He had resigned, or in a few cases been removed from, most of his many city and state positions; Triborough was his final remaining official position of real influence.[62] If he viewed the merger as ending his public career, he could be expected to attack, vigorously and adroitly, and it might then not be possible to obtain agreement to the plan from legislators and bondholders.[63] So Rockefeller and Ronan moved cautiously and shrewdly: They pointed out to Moses and his associates that a future record of achievement lay not simply with Triborough, whose successes were in the past, but in exerting leadership in creating a magnificent new structure—a Long Island Sound bridge. But Moses could not take on that


challenge unless Rockefeller pressed for legislative approval and appointed Moses to head the project. Meanwhile, Moses was led to believe that he would be appointed to an important post with the MTA—as a member of the new authority's board, or perhaps as president of Triborough, which would retain its organizational identity though not policy control.[64]

Moses accepted these assurances. After a meeting with the governor in March 1967, he publicly supported the merger bill, and he endorsed and campaigned for the $2.5 billion bond issue.[65] The construction unions followed his lead. Meanwhile, Rockefeller had won Mayor Lindsay's support by offering some minor concessions to meet the mayor's reluctance to accept a new state-controlled authority with great influence in local affairs.[66] Having no significant opposition, the bond issue and merger bills were overwhelmingly approved by the state legislature by the end of March. And, with a slight majority upstate and an overwhelming favorable vote in New York City, the voters endorsed the highway-transit bond issue in November.[67]

The only obstacle remaining in the way of the Rockefeller-Ronan scheme was approval by the bondholders. Rockefeller had already persuaded Moses not to oppose a negotiated settlement. In a series of discussions with representatives of the bondholders during the winter of 1967–1968, it was agreed that the bondholders would accept the merger and the control of Triborough surpluses by the MTA board, in return for a modest increase in the bondholders' interest payments.[68]

On March 1, 1968, the new Metropolitan Transportation Authority came into being, with William Ronan as chairman and chief executive officer, and with eight other members. Robert Moses was not among them. Instead, Robert Moses was designated as "consultant" to Triborough. As he recalled later, "I was told by Dr. Ronan and by Governor Rockefeller several times that the building of the Long Island Sound crossing . . . would be my primary responsibility when that project was in the clear." Meanwhile, he was left with "rather undefined duties," and his former assistants now reported directly to


Ronan's office.[69] And as the possibility of building the Long Island Sound bridge faded and died in the 1970s,[70] so did Moses's dream of constructing a final spectacular contribution to the road-building era that now seemed no more.

So the camel advanced by increments into the tent, and the old tiger was squeezed into a corner, and finally sent out into the dark.[71]

Larger Resources and a "Grand Design"

What painstaking negotiations, shrewd maneuvering, and broader vision had created in the spring of 1968 was a public enterprise with many of the attributes long sought by advocates of coordinated transport and regional planning. The MTA spanned a large part of the region—New York City plus seven nearby counties, a total of 4,000 square miles in which lived twelve million citizens.[72] It was responsible for subways, buses, commuter rail services, and vehicular bridges and tunnels, and the new agency had a statutory mandate to implement a "unified" mass transportation policy for the region. Moreover, its leaders had a tilt toward rail facilities. Ronan criticized previous public policies that had "permitted our rail links to atrophy," and promised to seek a "balanced approach" in order to "save, then nurture and restore the great vitality of our troubled cities."[73] The MTA's scope and perspective made this a "tremendous forward step," commented the New York Times editorially. The Times view that this was "the greatest advance in the metropolitan transportation system in at least half a century" was no doubt received warmly at the governor's mansion in these early months of a presidential election year. The newspaper was compelled to note, however, that with New Jersey not yet included, the "truly regional agency that has been the goal of planners for decades" was yet to "evolve."[74]

The new agency not only had wide regional and transportation scope; MTA also had money—millions of new dollars that could be used to revitalize rail and bus services, and thus stabilize traffic or even reverse the trend toward the automobile. The largest chunk of new money came from the bond issue approved in the fall of 1967; together with local matching funds, this would provide more than one billion dollars during the next five years for


transportation improvements planned and carried out by the MTA.[75] In addition, Ronan could draw upon the surpluses of Moses's Triborough empire, which were expected to be more than $25 million in the first year, with larger sums to follow.[76]

Equally important, the MTA had leadership skills and political savvy that seemed likely to rival those found earlier in the Moses regime and at the Port Authority. William Ronan had already proven to be an intelligent, forceful, and crafty adviser and executive—in his many years as a top aide to Governor Rockefeller, in his negotiations leading to the creation of the MCTA, the purchase of the LIRR, and the deposing of Moses, and in his nearly three years as chief of MCTA. And behind Ronan stood Rockefeller, whose interest in a vigorous and successful MTA was quickened by his awareness that the agency's early efforts could enhance his political power as governor, and perhaps improve his prospects for a successful presidential bid.[77] He had already fought long and hard for creation of the MCTA and the MTA, and had campaigned across the state for the 1967 bond issue. In contrast with the approach in the 1950s of Governor Dewey and New Jersey's Governor Meyner—who fought mainly to keep the mass transit problem at arm's length—Rockefeller wanted to be involved, and he wanted success.

These advantages were, however, offset by obstacles that might interfere with MTA's effort to achieve specific development goals. First, Ronan confronted a wide range of constituency demands, and some of those constituencies were in conflict with one another. There was the potential conflict between the advocates of better rail and bus facilities, and those who might demand better highway facilities or lower tolls. Even those who favored better bus and rail transit could not be counted on to support the MTA's efforts. Some of its proposals would probably aid certain parts of the region more than others, and the "others" could be expected to protest.

Moreover, among hundreds of thousands of MTA clients were many—and generally the most outspoken—whose basic orientation to the services the authority would provide was hostile and aggressive. In addition, MTA's insulation from local policy control—only New York City was represented on the authority's board—meant that elected officials from Nassau County and other local areas would adopt commuters' concerns as their own, attacking the


agency for its neglect of local needs.[78] The prospect for such conflict was enhanced by the Albany-approved arrangement for meeting station maintenance costs on the LIRR: the state-run authority would maintain the railroad stations, but it would charge the local communities for these costs. As the experience of the MCTA under this arrangement already revealed, these mandated expenses did not endear the agency to local officials who had to levy taxes to pay the bills.[79]

And there was, really, a problem of money. Certainly, the new authority had the great advantage of the 1967 bond funds, and a pot of Triborough gold that might increase. But more would be needed simply to meet the increasing subway and commuter-railroad deficits, fueled regularly by wage settlements beyond the means of the operating agencies. And still more money would have to be found to demonstrate that the MTA was a successful invention—not merely an agency battling to stay even, but an enterprise that could produce striking plans, marshal public opinion in support of its vision of the future, experiment with new technologies, and reconstruct the region's transport systems. The MTA's leaders were not unaware of these greater financial needs, and soon after the MTA commenced operations Ronan began to urge that "full national resources be applied" to solving urban transportation problems.[80]

First, however, if the new authority wanted to dramatize its new role, convert skeptics and adversaries into admiring supporters, and demonstrate how massive funds would be used, Ronan needed a plan. MCTA's planning skills were set to the task, and in February 1968, before the MTA was formally in being, Rockefeller and Ronan announced a "sweeping $2.9 billion blue-print." Their self-styled "Grand Design" called for a new subway under Man-hattan's Second Avenue, running north to connect with a new subway line in the Bronx, as well as additional subway and LIRR service in Queens, a new rail tunnel from Queens to Manhattan at 63rd Street, and a new rail terminal in Manhattan at 48th Street. There would be a rail line built to Kennedy Airport, and hundreds of new subway cars and commuter railroad coaches for the region's rail travelers. New turbo-trains would rush Long Island commuters at speeds up to 100 mph, cutting in half commuting time from major


suburban stations. And true to Rockefeller's promise and Moses's dream, one or even two bridges would extend across the Long Island Sound.[81]

Upon hearing Ronan describe these visions of the future, Rockefeller stepped to the front of the assembled audience of journalists and exclaimed that he thought "we have been witnessing a historic event." The New York Times was less enthusiastic, for while the plan seemed basically "well-conceived," it "will not remedy all the existing deficiencies." The Times argued that "something akin to a system of moving sidewalks" might be added to the plan, for the enjoyment of the more agile mid-Manhattan office workers. Buried in the extensive news coverage given to the media event was a cautionary note from chairman Ronan, who said that all the cost figures had been calculated at current price levels, and that any delays might increase costs "beyond our capacity to meet them."[82]

"Many a Slip . . . "

During the next decade, progress toward the "Grand Design" proceeded by fits and starts, with a bit more of the former than the latter. Although the ten-year plan was endorsed by the Regional Plan Association and other civic groups, the program came under fire from Mayor Lindsay, from elected officials in Queens and Brooklyn, and from spokesmen for the New York Stock Exchange and other groups—either because it did not go far enough, or because it slighted some parts of the city while benefiting others.[83]

Meanwhile, the subway deficit continued to rise, from $49 million in 1968 to more than $70 million in 1969 and $120 million in 1970, bringing pressure on Ronan and his MTA board to increase the transit fare, which they did in 1970. Further wage increases and larger deficits led to another fare increase in 1972. On each occasion, city officials and strap-hangers attacked the MTA for the fare hikes and continuing service deficiencies.[84] Long Island


rail commuters, faced with work slowdowns and deteriorating equipment in the first years of the MTA, were equally unhappy.[85]

But Ronan and Rockefeller fought back, with substance and with public-relations ploys. In the fall of 1968 the first new LIRR cars were delivered, and the governor announced enthusiastically that "the future in metropolitan area transportation is here now."[86] Less than a year later, as heightened labor problems and service breakdowns resulted in the LIRR's "worst service in the memory of man,"[87] and as commuters revolted against showing their tickets and paying fares, Rockefeller promised that the LIRR would have "the finest railroad service in the country" within two months. Sixty days later, to a skeptical audience, he announced that this pinnacle had been achieved. It was, as one observer noted, "one of a long list of political productions" by the embattled governor.[88] Meanwhile, Nassau County and New York City continued to withhold station-maintenance payments, wages spiralled upward, and deficits on the LIRR and the subway system grew ever larger.[89]

Still the MTA inched forward with its modernization plans. By 1971, 620 new cars were in service on the LIRR; and during 1968–1971 1,100 new subway cars, most of them air conditioned, were purchased using funds from the 1967 bond issue and placed in service. Also in 1971, the Staten Island rapid transit line was purchased for a fair market price—one dollar—and the MTA began to replace its ancient rolling stock (none had been bought since 1925) and refurbish its decrepit stations. Meanwhile, Connecticut had created a Transportation Authority to work with the MTA to maintain passenger service on the bankrupt New Haven Railroad. The two state authorities assumed full responsibility for commuter service on the line in 1971 and began a $100 million modernization program—with federal funds totaling $40 million to assist the bistate effort. The following year, the MTA took over the remaining commuter lines operating out of Grand Central Station, the Hudson and Harlem routes through Westchester County formerly provided by the New York Central.[90]

Moreover, Ronan's agency—now dubbed the Wholly Ronan Empire—began to move vigorously on bus problems, a concern that had simply been left out of the original "Grand Design."[91] In 1971, 200 new buses were put into


service on the MTA's routes in New York City. When several private bus companies in Westchester began to falter financially, the authority and the county government purchased the buses and assured the continuance of commuter bus service. And the MTA responded to a similar problem in Nassau County by creating a new subsidiary, the Metropolitan Suburban Bus Authority, which took over the facilities of ten bus companies and began operating them as a unified system.[92]

While these efforts to stabilize and modernize service went forward, deficits continued to mount on all the MTA's rail systems. The rate of increase on the Long Island was particularly striking, growing from $2.5 million in 1965 (the year before state purchase) to $54.7 million in 1971. In response, the authority raised commuter rates and subway fares, squeezed increasing amounts out of Triborough, and—as inflation ate into the funds remaining from the 1967 bond issue—saw its ability to achieve the "Grand Design" fading.

If more funds were needed, Rockefeller and Runan concluded, the voters would have to supply them through another bond issue. The governor took the lead, carrying the issue to the electorate with a $2.5 billion proposal in 1971—and he was defeated. Undaunted, Rockefeller put together a massive $3,5 billion bond issue two years later, and it too lost in the statewide vote. Both proposals had been carefully crafted to provide large amounts for mass transit and for highways, and Rockefeller offered the prospect of lower bus fares, as well as rail and bus capital improvements. Thus the bond issues might appeal both to advocates of mass transit and auto travel, and to citizens in upstate regions as well as to New York-area voters. But upstate, the proposals seemed to offer too much for New York City and its suburbs, while downstate transit advocates denounced them as "highway plans in mass transit clothing."[93]

So the MTA limped along, with little money to carry out its large construction program, searching for ways to make modest improvements in rolling stock and to meet ever-growing deficits. Triborough tolls were increased in 1972 and again in 1975 to provide funds for rail and bus operations. Although these increases led to some traffic diversion to toll-free bridges, net revenue from the Triborough facilities continued to rise. TBTA funds transferred to mass transit operations doubled to $50 million a year in 1972, rose to $74 million in 1974, and passed $100 million in 1976.[94]


The Interweaving of Federal and Regional Action

Faced with mounting transit deficits, Ronan and other officials in the region called upon Washington for help. In his first months at MTA, Ronan advocated tripling federal aid for mass transit projects from its 1968 level of $175 million. He also urged that federal funds for mass transit cover 90 percent of costs as they did in the interstate highway program. MTA was a prominent member of the transit coalition that pressed successfully for passage of the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1970, authorizing several billion dollars for capital projects. By 1971, as president of the Institute for Rapid Transit, a national pressure group, Ronan was among the leaders in lobbying for federal operating subsidies for rail and bus lines, and for use of the Highway Trust Fund to finance transit operations.

In 1972–1973, the MTA was an active member of the national coalition that finally breeched the wall, as the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1973 permitted use of trust fund dollars for mass transit projects. The 1973 act also increased federal transit grants to $6.1 billion, and improved the federal matching ratio to 80–20.[95] A year later—spurred in part by energy-conservation arguments—Congress agreed for the first time to provide money for transit operating subsidies, and approved an $11.8 billion multiyear package for mass transportation. The new measure, passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan support, was heralded by members of Congress from the New York region, who had led the fight for approval, as ushering in a "new era for mass transit."[96]

But in MTA territory the new era looked very much like the old, as rail-system deficits continued to mount, and construction for new subway lines crept along slowly. One notable difference, however, was the absence of the old leaders: In December 1973, after nearly fifteen years at the helm in Albany, Nelson Rockefeller had resigned the governorship, leaving soon after for Washington as the third in the 1970s parade of Republican vice-presidents. And in 1974, William Ronan moved from MTA headquarters to the heights of the World Trade Center, as the new chairman of the Port Authority's governing board.


Meanwhile, the search for additional funds for mass transit continued. In 1973, Mayor Lindsay sought to reduce the $100 million annual burden imposed on the city budget by the transit system by urging a regional payroll tax. Lindsay's scheme involved creation of a regional transit district encompassing the tristate area; the new district would draw funds from federal and state sources, as well as from a payroll tax, thus putting the region's transit operations on a "firm and durable financial footing." Three years later, the MTA's new chairman emphasized the authority's need for "adequate and assured financing on a long-term" basis, and also urged that a broad-based regional tax be enacted.[97]

These sentiments released a predictable flow of encouragement from the New York Times . One commentator on political affairs wrote optimistically that

New York and its surrounding communities have come to realize, more and more, that the suburbs and the city are one—that if New York dies, Scarsdale and Montclair and New Canaan may be next. . . . The regional approach is, perhaps, the only approach.[98]

Eloquent statements indeed. But wary local officials and state legislators had no interest in that kind of regional cooperation, and both the Lindsay and MTA proposals died aborning.

Cooperative action did continue, however, directed toward the goal of squeezing more funds from the occasionally reluctant guardians of the federal exchequer. In 1976, urban interests in Congress obtained additional "temporary" federal funds for commuter rail transportation, in order to "assist in an orderly transition to locally supported service." No such transition had occurred by the fall of 1977, and President Carter reluctantly signed a bill extending this aid, while expressing disappointment that "the affected cities have not yet arranged to live within these original Federal emergency payments."[99] Congressmen from the New York region pressed ahead, urging an increase in the federal gasoline tax, with the added moneys used to provide a new trust fund—for mass transportation programs. And Carter's own proposals, announced in January 1978, called for $50 billion for mass transportation and highways, with matching funds for transit finally reaching the 90–10 ratio used for interstate roads, and with increased flexibility for cities to select their own preferred mix of rail and highway projects. As approved by Congress and signed by the President in November, the Surface Transportation Act of 1978 provided nearly $14 billion for mass transit during the next four years, plus additional funds, if highway projects were


"traded in" for transit, that might yield a total transit-aid figure of more than $16 billion.[100]

The MTA's First Decade

In announcing the "Grand Design" in 1968, MTA leaders had said that Phase I would be entirely completed in ten years—if there were no delays. But delays there were, due to conflicting priorities among MTA, New York City, and suburban officials, between mass transit and highway proponents, between upstate and downstate voters. By 1978, there were significant improvements in the quality of rail and bus service in the 12-county MTA region, but there were important offsetting minuses as well—fares that had risen sharply, and inaction on most of the new lines that had been proposed in 1968.

On the positive side, the deterioration in the region's commuter services had been halted, and significantly reversed on some rail lines. The Staten Island line now had new rolling stock in place of its forty-five-year-old cars, the subway system and the Long Island rail system had more than 600 new cars each, and the New Haven, Hudson, and Harlem lines also sported new commuter cars and other modest improvements. Bus services in the region were stabilized, and in Nassau County the MTA's efforts had reversed the long-term decline in ridership.[101]

On the other hand, in order to meet continuously rising costs, fares had increased substantially since 1968. Although such increases affected rail and bus services throughout the region, the rate of increase was particularly notable on New York City's subway and bus lines, where fares rose from twenty cents to thirty, then thirty-five, and then fifty cents, bringing agonized cries from riders and local officials.

Moreover, while electrification, air conditioned cars and other improvements had some favorable impact on service quality, they did not meet the expectations of commuters, or even of MTA and state leaders. Here the "loss leader" was the Long Island Rail Road. In the late 1960s, Ronan and his aides had distributed to LIRR commuters their plans for the coming decade—including a table showing dramatic reductions of 40 to 50 percent in running time between Long Island stations and Manhattan. But in 1978, the actual timetables were essentially the same as a decade earlier, and some trains even took longer to reach Manhattan.[102] In the summer of 1978, equipment failures


One of MTA's new subway cars operating on the
express line between mid-Manhattan and Kennedy Airport.
Credit: Metropolitan Transportation Authority

and canceled trains had begun to cause political problems for Governor Carey, as they had for his predecessor. Under pressure from the governor—whose spokesman said the railroad was in "hideous shape"—and from commuter groups, the MTA abruptly fired the LIRR president in late July. By general agreement, the LIRR was "in the throes of its worst performance since 1968."[103]

As the energy crisis grew in the late 1970s, the subways, buses and railroad lines of the MTA all experienced significant gains in ridership. But these gains, which continued into the 1980's as gasoline prices remained high, brought as many problems as benefits. MTA revenues were up; but overcrowding became severe, with hundreds of rail commuters standing during long trips from distant suburbs. The added passengers contributed to the increased delays, and at times trains bound for Manhattan were so crowded that they could not pick up passengers at the final inbound stations, leaving


A commuter train operated by the state of New Jersey
picks up passengers at the old Plainfield station on the
former line of the Central Railroad of New Jersey.
Credit: Barbara Reilly, Staff Photographer, New Jersey Transit

weary commuters stranded. The new cars needed to alleviate the crush were not expected to arrive until 1984.[104]

Finally, the program of new construction—the centerpiece of the 1968 plan—had been largely suspended since the early 1970s, a victim of rising costs and inadequate resources. A few segments of the 63rd Street line to Queens, and of the Southeast Queens line, were completed and a few others were under construction a decade later, though they were far behind the original time schedule. Only a small part of the fabled Second Avenue subway had been started, and other projects, such as the new rail line connecting Kennedy Airport with Manhattan and the East Side transportation center in Manhattan, had never moved off the drawing boards. Nor were there prospects for going ahead with most of these projects in the near future. In 1968, the estimated costs for the new transit lines were $1.3 billion; by 1973, the total had risen to more than 2.5 billion. At that point the MTA stopped estimating the cost. In the winter of 1978–1979 the alert pedestrian could still see signs on Fifth Avenue near 63rd Street in Manhattan, proclaiming "the MTA's overall program of adding over 40 miles of new subways," but these


A new PATH train in Newark, from which the
Port Authority's commuter line provides service to
Jersey City, Hoboken, mid-Manhattan, and the World Trade
Center in lower Manhattan.
Credit: Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

were only monuments to past hopes now beyond the authority's means or realistic intention.[105]

The Port Authority in Disarray

On the west side of the Hudson a similar pattern of public action emerged, although the institutional development was quite different. Under the leadership of the state Department of Transportation (which succeeded the Highway Department in 1966), service was stabilized on most New Jersey rail lines, new cars were acquired for many of the routes, and a series


of modest improvements in the system was initiated. State operating subsidies and funds for capital improvements were extended to bus lines, thus preserving commuter services which in New Jersey carried considerably more passengers than the rail lines. The costs of these subsidies to private bus companies grew rapidly, however, leading the state in 1979 to initiate action to take over ownership and operation of major bus lines.[106] Under the Port Authority, the Hudson Tubes became the PATH rail lines (for Port Authority Trans-Hudson) and were overhauled with new equipment and terminal facilities in lower Manhattan and Jersey City. As in New York, stabilization, overhaul, and increasing labor and other costs brought higher fares and continued dissatisfaction from New Jersey commuters. The new era also produced a series of ambitious plans for major improvements which were delayed by rising costs, conflicts over priorities, and disagreements over financing and institutional arrangements.[107]

The most serious dispute in New Jersey centered on the role of the Port Authority in mass transportation. As the 1960s drew to a close, the bistate agency seemed protected from further involvement in rail transit by the 1962 bond covenant, which effectively limited the Port Authority's rail transportation role to the PATH tubes. Friends and enemies alike viewed the covenant, which seemed to foreclose deeper authority involvement in rail transit, as a premier example of the strategic skill of its officials in defending the agency's independence and power.[108] What Austin Tobin had not expected was a governor who would demand that the covenant be changed and, when faced with resistance because of alleged constitutional barriers, would again demand that the covenant be changed—and further, insist that Port Authority officials agree with his view and make plans to plunge the agency deeply into rail transit, despite personal and legal reservations. But William Cahill, who was elected New Jersey's chief executive in November 1969, was such a governor.

Acting on his campaign promises, Cahill urged the Port Authority to press ahead with rail transit commitments and brushed off the protests of Tobin and his commissioners. By 1971, Cahill was using his veto power to delay its other programs, while advocating Port Authority action on a series of rail projects.[109] When Tobin defended the authority's position as a self-


supporting body and expressed doubt that it could assume large deficits and survive, Cahill attacked the executive director publicly. He also directed that the New Jersey commissioners caucus separately before board meetings to establish a "New Jersey point of view," and he warned them to follow his lead on the mass transit issue if they wanted to be reappointed.[110]

The Cahill barrage had an impact. In December 1971, Austin Tobin abruptly announced his retirement after nearly 30 years as executive director.[111] Five months later, the authority's vice-chairman, a respected banker who shared Tobin's views on the bond covenant, also resigned.[112] In the spring of 1972, after years of working with Tobin and his staff, Governor Rockefeller attacked the old regime and urged that William Ronan be chosen to replace Tobin and change the agency "from a rubber to a rails orientation."[113] That November the two governors announced that the Port Authority had agreed to a plan which, within the constraints of the bond covenant, would permit it to apply more than $250 million of its own funds to extend the PATH rail lines into the New Jersey suburbs, provide rail service between Manhattan and Kennedy airport, and carry out other rail projects.[114]

Then, in the spring of 1973, both states passed legislation ending the bond covenant for Port Authority bonds sold in the future, and a year later


both states overturned the covenant retroactively. With that hurdle allegedly out of the way, Port Authority tolls were raised sharply in order to provide more funds to carry out additional mass transportation projects. Ultimately, the scheme failed. The repeal of the covenant predictably brought a bondholders' suit, and in 1977 the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the states' action as a violation of the obligations of the contract clause of the Constitution.[115] The rail transit projects announced with fanfare in the early 1970s would have to be financed in some other way, not with Port Authority funds.

But the long battle to increase the authority's activities in mass transit had other results. In the complex world of the Port Authority, a sense of institutional purpose, effective central leadership, and staff morale had been crucially linked for thirty years to Austin Tobin's energy and intensive involvement in all major areas—and to staff expectations that funds would be available to permit them to carry out ambitious programs. As Tobin's energies became absorbed in the battle with Governor Cahill, the potentially separate empires—airports, world trade, and the other departments—began to drift apart; and when that conflict cast into doubt the ability of the Port Authority to raise and employ the sums needed to achieve large purposes, staff members worked less for the institution and more for themselves. The process was subtle: some did not know it was happening. And the change in the institution was uneven: in some areas, where there were new plans afoot, a lively interest in the future remained. But in department after department, a sense of forward motion—of the possibilities for forward motion—crept out, and staff morale fell.

Had Tobin II replaced Tobin I, it might have been different. But in December 1971 Tobin's replacement was a career staff member, designated as "acting" executive director; and he in turn was succeeded in 1973 by another careerist with the same tentative hold on the office until receiving a regular appointment in the fall of 1974.[116] Perhaps neither of them had a taste for vigorous leadership; but in view of the uncertain legal situation and recurrent gubernatorial forays, it would have required a person of quite unusual abilities to do much better. Had Rockefeller's first choice been accepted in 1972, power might again have flowed into the staff director's office; but William Ronan was not acceptable to a majority of the commissioners, because of his advocacy of deeper rail transit involvement and their


fear that this effort would end the vitality of the agency as a self-supporting enterprise.[117]

For a time the leadership vacuum was filled by Ronan, who had served on the board since 1967 and became chairman in May 1974. But his strong protransit stance and earlier criticisms of other Port Authority officials made it difficult for him to gain support within the agency. For example, in 1972 he criticized his fellow commissioners publicly for appearing to "assign a higher priority to the bond market than to mass transportation" and expressed doubt that the board majority was "highly motivated toward the difficult decisions necessary" to fund large transit projects.[118] By the end of 1974, Ronan himself had been publicly rebuked by Brendan Byrne, Cahill's successor as governor, for failing to make progress in mass transportation, and he was criticized inside the agency for his unwillingness to let staff members make decisions, while being largely absent from the Port Authority offices himself. As one commissioner noted openly in November 1974, "nothing is getting done." The authority was "dead in the water."[119]

So the Port Authority drifted. Bridge and tunnel tolls were increased in early 1975 to fund mass transportation projects, an expansion of the Manhattan bus terminal was begun later that year, and in the spring of 1976 the governors of both states again announced that the Port Authority would help to finance a new mass transit program. But the 1972 program had never gotten underway, the legal uncertainties remained, and the authority's financial position had weakened—mainly due to multimillion-dollar yearly deficits generated at the World Trade Center, PATH, and Newark Airport.[120]

In the spring of 1977, frustrated by the agency's inability to devise a legally acceptable transit program, Governor Byrne began vetoing board actions on all subjects, further undermining morale and a sense of direction at the authority. Byrne demanded that the agency either find a way to use the added moneys for mass transit, or rescind the 1975 toll increase. Otherwise,


he said, "I will not let them operate. I will veto the minutes." While authority commissioners and staff searched feverishly for a way to underwrite mass transit without violating the bondholders' rights, Byrne vetoed the minutes of the board in May and again in June, thus blocking the Port Authority from approving contracts and taking policy actions in a wide variety of areas. Continuing to apply pressure during the summer, Byrne criticized the authority as "too staff-dominated" and as populated by people who take a negative view of rail transit. While denying that his widely publicized efforts were motivated by a desire for votes in his 1977 reelection campaign, the governor acknowledged that his constituents would welcome either forward action on a transit plan or a toll reduction.[121]

Then, for the first time, scandal touched the agency's top officials. Rumors of inflated and fraudulent expense vouchers, of authority cars and helicopters appropriated for family outings of senior staff and commissioners, and of contract irregularities reached the press. By the fall of 1977 three senior officials had been disciplined, one had committed suicide, and New York State's Comptroller's Office had issued several detailed reports describing "extravagancy at public expense," "widespread padding of expense accounts," and other examples of misuse of public funds and of managerial weakness.[122]

Yet even as these past abuses were generating banner headlines, the Port Authority began to recover, drawing on its financial resources, areal and functional scope, staff skills—and new leadership. The Supreme Court decision in April 1977, reaffirming the validity of the 1962 covenant, strengthened the authority's position in the bond market, and required that rail transit advocates search for alternative ways—consistent with the covenant's constraints—to involve the agency. Soon thereafter, in June 1977, Ronan, whose relationships with Governors Byrne and Carey were not close, was replaced as Port Authority chairman by Alan Sagner, one of Byrne's closest associates. At the same time, the board broke a tradition of fifty years and hired Peter C. Goldmark, Jr., as the authority's first staff director from outside its career ranks.[123] Under its new leaders, the authority took steps to tighten managerial controls over the areas


where there had been abuses, and pressed for a transit program that would meet legal restrictions while providing the two states with $240 million in new funding—to purchase commuter bus equipment, develop additional exclusive bus roadways, and aid other mass transit facilities. Believing that the authority's leaders were now willing and able to move ahead in the transit area, Byrne stopped vetoing authority actions.

Conflict into the 1980s: the Case of Westway

By the close of the 1970s, the region's two great independent agencies—the Port Authority and Triborough—had been yoked to mass transit's painted wagon. Triborough was fully submerged in a still larger enterprise, and was reduced to Moses's nightmare, collecting tolls and cleaning tunnels. The Port Authority was only partially yoked to mass transit, as it was assured by the 1962 covenant of some resources for innovative efforts in industrial development, energy recovery, or other fields that might benefit the region, its citizens, and its most venerable bistate agency.[124]

The states too were harnessed to mass transportation. Both state and city leaders continued to make vigorous efforts to secure more help from Washington, whose transportation resources might be diverted from highway building to aid the cities' transit needs, thus helping New York City, Newark, and Paterson to survive, and even thrive.

The highway-building era had ended; the highway era continued. This was the irony faced by those who supported mass transportation as they rounded the corner of the 1970s and tumbled into yet another decade. Indeed, as recounted in Chapter Four, the added influence yielded to local communities, along with the energy crisis and other forces, had ended the time of dramatic highway expansion in the New York region and, with few exceptions, around the nation. But the highways and their beneficiaries had not gone away. They fought still for the funds needed to complete Interstate 287 in Bergen County and other elements of the interstate network. Even the heralded 1978 federal act, which provided more than $14 billion for mass transportation, authorized much more—$37 billion—for highway projects.

Moreover, those who monitored the quality of the road system and lived by its largess argued that even greater amounts would be required to repair highways that were "beginning to crumble." By the end of the decade, U.S. officials calculated that a sharply increased level of federal aid would be needed simply to maintain the levels of highway quality that had existed in the mid-1970s.[125]

In the New York region, the road-building coalition found new allies in the late 1970s, as it adopted a wider vision in the massive Westway project. And here, in an urban drama that pitted regional planners against environmentalists and neighborhood groups, and divided mass transit advocates into


Crumbling piers and the relic of the West Side
Highway flank the site of the proposed Westway
project along the Hudson River in Manhattan.
Credit: Sheldon Pollack

opposing camps, the many obstacles to large transportation projects and to integrated transportation and land-use development were clearly displayed.

When a truck carrying ten tons of asphalt plunged through the roadbed of the elevated West Side Highway in December 1973, it seemed evident that a major renovation of this forty-year-old roadway, which ran down the western shore of Manhattan, was past due. Major portions of the expressway were pronounced unsafe, and the highway south of 46th Street was closed, dispersing its traffic onto congested Manhattan streets.

Two plans were emphasized in the ensuing debate. One plan would simply replace the highway with a new road, probably at street level. The other, which evolved in the mid-1970s, would use the collapse of West Side Highway as an opportunity for a major project in urban renovation—with a total price tag of $1.4 billion. This ambitious scheme proposed replacing the elevated roadway with a six-lane highway, extending more than four miles from 42nd Street to the Battery, at the lower tip of Manhattan. Responding to the environmental and other anti-road concerns of the 1970s, most of the highway would be built below street level, and much of it would be covered over. The covered sections would be used to provide ninety-three acres of parks along the Hudson River and over 100 acres for commercial, residential, and industrial development. By attracting traffic from congested Manhattan streets, proponents argued, the new highway might actually reduce air pollution. In addition, the project would generate 6,000 or more construction jobs per year.

What the Westway project, as it was called, would mean in terms of new permanent jobs was a matter of some debate even among the proponents. The enthusiasts, led by a coalition of business executives and labor leaders, envi-


sioned $7 billion in new private investment flowing to the area, and a net job impact—new jobs plus jobs that may disappear from New York without Westway—of over 150,000. Other project supporters, privately noting that such estimates were "outrageously high," anticipated at least 30,000 new jobs. There was agreement, however, that "this major economic development project" was indeed "New York City's opportunity of the century"—offering a way to revitalize not only the waterfront but the entire "decaying West Side of Manhattan."[126]

Opponents argued that the new highway would attract more traffic to the area, increasing both congestion and air pollution. They insisted that the funds should be traded in for additional mass-transit aid, as was now possible under federal law, and as Boston and other cities had done. Some argued that using "Westway funds" to renovate and improve the subway system would generate as many jobs as Westway, or even more.

The possibility of exchanging the Westway project for a modest highway at grade level, plus much-needed transit funds, was the central plank in the opposition campaign, but there were other concerns as well. Some were unhappy at the prospect of losing the old buildings and piers that gave this area of Manhattan its distinctive atmosphere. Many feared that the project would cause sharp increases in land speculation, property values, and taxes, driving out residents along the project area. Opponents also pointed to the possible destruction of fish spawning grounds, and heightened water pollution, that might result from the dredging and landfill operations required by Westway. And across the Hudson, the mayor of Jersey City noted with concern that landfill operations to build up the western Manhattan shoreline would alter the flow of the Hudson River—shifting it westward and possibly flooding Jersey City and Bayonne.[127]

To the New York Times, Westway's advantages clearly outweighed its costs and improved on any feasible alternative. Noting that state grants would meet 10 percent of project costs and federal funds the rest, the Times argued that the project "would not cost the city a cent." Moreover, this "welcome $1 billion" was not "just money for a road, or for jobs." Westway was a "comprehensive land-use project," exclaimed the Times ; "it probably represents New York's major planning opportunity of the century." In response to the argument that these highway funds should be traded in for transit, the Times adopted a different view of the issue than it had in the past. If these moneys were used "to finish the Queens lines," the editorial board explained, the new transit facilities would burden the city with an additional operating deficit of "at least $20 million a year, and probably much more." "So on with it," the Times concluded, in its vigorous endorsement of Westway.[128]


As he approached the 1978 reelection campaign, Governor Carey, who had once denounced the project as a "planning and ecological disaster," found that his ability to attract crucially needed labor and business support in New York City would be greatly aided by a vigorous pro-Westway stance, and became persuaded of the project's great value. The U.S. Secretary of Transportation, after weighing the complex arguments for and against, also supported the plan, in a press conference held in Governor Carey's Manhattan office in January 1977. The Westway effort was, he concluded, "vital to the strength and future of New York City"; and as he spoke, Carey later said, "I could hear the money flowing."[129]

Other sources of opposition had to be laid to rest before the money would flow, however. In his successful 1977 mayoralty campaign in New York City, Edward Koch had refused to alter his long-standing opposition to massive highway projects in Manhattan, even though that stand would cut into his labor and business support. As a Manhattan congressman, he had opposed Westway and called for trading in the funds for additional aid to mass transit. The governor then wooed the new mayor, pledging that if Mayor Koch would support Westway the state would provide $120 million from Port Authority surpluses, and $40 million in state funds, in order to generate $640 million in federal funds for mass transit in the city. Moreover, Carey would personally guarantee that the subway fare would not be increased beyond its current 50-cent level until at least the end of 1981—after the next campaign for mayor in New York City. Koch reversed his position and endorsed Westway in April 1978. In the gubernatorial campaign that year, Carey was able to use that agreement as an example of his leadership in meeting complex transportation and economic development problems, and his Westway supporters among labor and business helped him to victory in November.

Even then, in the complex world of the 1970s, Westway could not proceed unless state and federal officials certified the project as acceptable in terms of air pollution and other environmental standards. Carey's own state commissioner of Environmental Conservation appeared reluctant to approve Westway, and this became a factor in his forced resignation in December 1978. And when a federal official opposed certification because of air pollution problems and possible damage to fishlife, Carey denounced him publicly as a "lunkhead" and urged that he be overruled or fired.

As the Westway battle extended into the 1980s, it seemed to illustrate many of the themes and divisions that had characterized transportation conflicts for the past three decades and more. There were echoes of the earlier era of highway building, when political power was concentrated and proposals for a massive George Washington Bridge or Verrazano span could sweep the opposition away through force of technical expertise, leadership skill, and asserted "public need." Indeed, some realities of that epoch remained: leaders of the construction unions who saw road building as jobs for their members; business executives who viewed such projects as essential steps in reducing traffic congestion and maintaining economic vitality for the region; elected officials who valued dramatic projects and the jobs they could provide as


steps to reelection, and whose enthusiasm was heightened when the projects also promised an economic boon (a plus for highway construction) without long-term deficits (a minus for rail projects).

There were strong echoes too of the near and distant past for those who had long fought for mass transit. Campaigners who recalled the LIRR and MRTC battles of the 1950s, and the first, grudging federal transit aid programs of the 1960s, viewed Westway as a symbol of that older era and saw a trade-in for transit as an important victory over that nearly vanquished highway foe. Moreover, the banners unfurled against Westway symbolized broader concerns as well—the importance in the present era of "doing something" about the environment, about energy, about the older cities. To defeat that billion-dollar project, and to funnel those funds into mass transit—this seemed a way to "do something" in the struggle against these several dragons.

As the Regional Plan Association attempted to explain, a careful evaluation of Westway required a more complex lens. Although the four-mile roadway was central to the project, it was only part of a far broader strategy for waterfront renovation and other new development along the West Side. Moreover, although Westway might bring some additional traffic to Manhattan, it would also siphon traffic from local streets, and might in time become crucial to a future effort to create auto-free zones in central Manhattan. And while the RPA had long advocated a better mass transit system, its officials viewed the trade-in of Westway moneys for transit funds as a "false choice," since the added transit dollars would be too little to make a significant dent in the region's problems. The RPA urged instead that the federal government make a vastly increased commitment to public transportation, including $2 billion a year for rail transit in the New York area.[130]

The Regional Plan Association, the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, the New York Times, and other groups made these arguments. And so did Governor Carey and his highway and planning aides. Even the chairman of the MTA endorsed the Westway project, arguing that there was no conflict between Westway and improved mass transit for the region. But now the number and variety of active constituencies were larger, their access to levers of influence—particularly via the new environmental laws—was much greater, and they were mistrustful of government action, especially on such a massive scale. As the process of gaining air-quality, water-quality, and dredge-and-landfill permits inched slowly forward, the opposition surged in at each decision point, pressing state and federal environmental agencies and the Army Corps of Engineers to reject the project. Using "transit trade-in" as a rallying cry, the Clean Air Coalition and its allies determined that if the executive agencies approved Westway, they would press a series of legal suits. "We can keep this in court" for years, a leader of the anti-Westway forces argued. "Westway won't be built—ever."[131]


So it was that those defenders of urban society who might have been united in urging both Westway and revitalized mass transit as crucial elements of a larger development strategy found themselves a house divided, exhausting their energies in a continuing war for the greater glory of the nation's largest metropolis.

The Continuing Search for Solutions

While much of the public attention during the 1960s and 1970s was directed toward the bankruptcy of major rail lines, the deposing of chairman Moses, and the conflicts surrounding the Port Authority bond covenant, the region took some significant steps toward meeting mass transportation needs. Through the exercise of political leadership and planning skills, government agencies channeled increasing amounts of state and federal funds—and authority surpluses—into rail and bus transit, with the result that major services throughout the region have survived and some public facilities, such as PATH, have even been improved. Admittedly, it would be difficult to find a mass-transit counterpart to the George Washington Bridge, or the Narrows crossing, in their impact on residential and job distribution in the region. Nevertheless, public transport services that would otherwise have been abandoned have, through governmental action, been stabilized. As a result, established patterns of transportation, jobs, and residential development have continued—altering incrementally, without abrupt dislocation of working and living patterns in the region.

By the late 1970s, federal money for mass transit had expanded to many times its early 1960s level, but this period of growth clearly ended with the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan in 1981. In cities and suburbs alike, there would be renewed competition between mass transit and highway forces to divide the shrinking transportation pie. It seemed unlikely that enough money would be forthcoming from federal and other sources to carry out large new rail projects in New York or other regions. Moreover, escalating costs seemed destined to absorb much of the new funding allocated to subway, bus, and commuter rail lines. With these several forces at work, it appeared unlikely that the combined efforts of federal, state and regional agencies would provide the "adequate and assured" long-term funding that might permit reduced fares and other improvements urged by the MTA chairman in a wishful moment in 1976.


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