Last night I wrote about a new van service running from Flushing, Queens to Fort Lee and Palisades Park, New Jersey. The service is privately owned and operated, and charges ten dollars each way (with a free trip every ten rides). Now let me ask: Can you imagine the Metropolitan Transit Authority starting such a service?
The wonkiest among you may reply, "No, because crossing the Hudson is the Port Authority's job." Fair enough; can you imagine the Port Authority starting such a service? As far as I know, the Port Authority has never initiated a new transit service at all. The only one they run is the PATH trains, which they took over when they bought the bankrupt Hudson and Manhattan Railroad in 1962. They rely on New Jersey Transit and private companies to provide transit across the Hudson.
Starting a service like this - a service that crosses a state line and two rivers, and charges ten dollars! - is not something that the Port Authority, or the MTA, or any of our transit bureaucracies, would ever do under the current circumstances. Only a few people at either agency has enough power, and for them the risks are too great, and the rewards too small.
Back in January, MTA Chief of Operations Planning Peter Cafiero announced that the authority would be shutting down the number 7 line for eleven weekends from late January through mid-April, and again for five weekends in the fall. Regular reader Angus Grieve-Smith picked up on an idea that I floated a couple of years ago to run shuttle buses through the Midtown Tunnel, and convinced City Council member Jimmy Van Bramer to back it with city money.
The MTA refused, according to the Post: "MTA chiefs balked at his idea, Van Bramer said, because they worried that if they offered it to 7 riders, they’d have to do the same for other communities that deal with serial service outages, like those along the L line." One of their complaints is that even if the tunnel bus worked, it would be a lot more expensive than a shuttle to Queensboro Plaza. I'm not convinced of this in the first place; note that they studied shuttle routes to Grand Central, even though I argued for using the 34th Street busway instead.
In addition to the "then we'd have to give ice cream to everyone" argument, transit agencies are often also reluctant to increase service if they have any fear that they might have to cut it back again later. In part this is because service cuts require so many hearings and announcements, and offer opportunities for politicians to rail against "the MTA." Why would any self-respecting bureaucrat set themselves up for more public criticism than the minimum they can get away with? It's similar to the argument that severance pay and other measures that make it difficult to fire people also make employers reluctant to hire.
Can anyone remember the last time the MTA started a new bus route? It has acquired routes that were started by old streetcar and jitney companies. It has regularized and streamlined the system, combining some routes, splitting others and renaming some. But has it ever said, "You know, there are people here who want to go there. They're willing to pay for that. Let's make that happen!
The only possibility I can think of are the express bus routes that were started in the 1970s. The Select Bus routes are upgrades of existing routes, and they're being pushed by the Department of Transportation. There were a few other routes proposed as part of the congestion pricing debate (including a local route from down Northern Boulevard and 61st Street from Flushing to Woodside), but they never saw the light of day.
The MTA did not realize that there were lots of people in Sunset Park, Flushing and Elmhurst who wanted a quick, one-seat ride to Chinatown. If they ever did figure that out, they did not try to provide that service. If private operators had not stepped in to provide it, would we know that the market exists? What other potential routes are we missing out on?