Saturday, September 5, 2009

More examples of profitability

I've spent a bunch of time recently talking about the profitable Lincoln Tunnel buses. Some of these companies, particularly the ones that operate the jitneys, are relatively new, but most are companies that have been running these buses since the Tunnel was built, and many of them used to run trolley lines. But I would be remiss if I didn't tell you the story of one of the companies that didn't make it. So pull up your chairs and gather round the fire, kids, and your Cap'n will tell you the story of Transport of New Jersey.

When I was a wee lad, I would go to the Port Authority and see buses with the big TNJ logo on them. TNJ was a mysterious, larger than life figure, like Frank Martz or Carl R. Bieber. I got it confused with the logo for the New Jersey Turnpike that we would pass in the bus.

While riding along the Turnpike, I would look out the window and see the large PSE&G power plant. Not long ago I actually tried to figure out what the letters stood for, and I was pretty sure that Pacific States Electric and Gas wasn't it. Little did I know that there was a connection.

Dave Mackey has a great history of the Public Service Coordinated Transport if you want the details. You may also want to read two very informative guest posts about streetcar history (one, two) by Scott Bernstein at the Overhead Wire. Briefly, though, it used to be very common for the same company to own both an electrical generating plant and a network of trolleys powered by that plant. Such was the case with the Public Service company of New Jersey. During the mid-twentieth century, they switched to buses along with most other streetcar operators, with the notable exception of the route that is now the main line of the Newark City Subway.

Mackey and Wikipedia user NE2 tell us that in 1971, Public Service no longer considered its bus operations to be profitable, and spun them off as Transport of New Jersey, which operated the routes under contract to the New Jersey Department of Transportation. In other words, the State of New Jersey paid for the buses and was responsible for any losses. In 1980 the state formed New Jersey Transit to take over those routes, and another set of routes in Mercer County. A few years later they took over the commuter rail operations of Conrail, which left the agency in the basic form that we know today.

So if the combination of the Lincoln Tunnel XBL and cordon pricing makes bus companies profitable, why didn't it do that with Transport of New Jersey? Well, first of all, it doesn't guarantee profits, it just enables them. An agency is free to mess up in any number of ways. There are plenty of businesses that fail despite having market advantages.

Secondly, there were a number of massive highways constructed in northern New Jersey between 1950 and 1971, any of which could have subsidized car travel to the point where TNJ was unable to compete. If they were not sufficient, the opening of Interstate 78 and Interstate 280 probably did. Newark was a major PSCT and TNJ hub. This does not quite fit with the fact that the Orange-Newark-Elizabeth buses are still profitable, but I don't know what the exact story is there. Maybe some of you out there have more details.

This raises a new question, however: the Passaic River is crossed by five major highway bridges downstream of the Great Falls. Would some kind of cordon pricing there have saved Transport of New Jersey?

No comments: