The most sensible people on the segment were callers Andres from Jersey City and TJ from Boro Park, and Lehrer himself. Despite her obvious windshield perspective and her partisan shilling for the car-oriented Bill Thompson, Savino was clearly pro-transit - although I'm disappointed that Lehrer didn't ask her to explain how she let bridge tolls fail in the Senate.
The biggest disappointment was Kate Slevin of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and her resolutely sunny we're-all-winners-with-transit schtick - which might explain Tri-State's bizarre stance on the Tappan Zee Bridge widening. I was particularly frustrated at how Slevin completely missed TJ's question, responding with a stock speech about how people are turning back to transit, which wound up reinforcing his point. I think TJ's question is a great one, so let me quote it for you:
How much is policy set indirectly by retaining the car - and the driver in the car - as a cash cow, as opposed to developing public transportation more, which perhaps is a lower revenue earner?
TJ's question echoes one asked in June by commenter P on a Streetsblog post announcing the pro-XBL Streetfilm:
My guess is that the Port Authority doesn't want to forego the tolls from the cars currently using those lanes. Pressure needs to be put on the PA from elected officials and advocacy groups that see a larger vision than just the PA's bottom line.
I've been thinking about P's question ever since, and I've done a little number-crunching. According to the Port Authority's 2008 financial statement (PDF), 20,937,000 vehicles traveled eastbound through the tunnel in that year, and the total operating revenues were $153,536,000. The XBL study found that 1700 buses use the lane every day. I will assume that half the average daily traffic, or 28,681 vehicles, passes through during the XBL hours, or 8,994 per non-XBL lane. I will further assume that trucks are 7% of these vehicles, as they are on an annual basis, and that these trucks have four axles on average. The Port Authority website tells us that these trucks would pay about $32 each, while cars pay $8 and buses $4.
This leads me to conclude that each non-XBL lane brings in $87,058 per day, and replacing it with a second XBL would cut all but $6,800 of that out, leading to a annual drop of $30 million - 19% of the revenue from the Tunnel. We may all agree on this blog that it's worth it, but it's still a big hit to ask the Port Authority to take.
If the Port Authority currently loses thousands a day on the buses, it makes most of it back in gate fees at the bus terminal. Buses pay $40 per departure (PDF), including any bus that goes into the terminal and doesn't immediately deadhead back to Jersey. If we estimate that that's 1500 of the 1700 buses, it comes out to $60,000 a day. The problem is that the terminal is pretty much at capacity, so any additional buses going through the lane would probably drop off on the street somewhere - my recommendation is to send them through the planned 34th Street busway, but in any case they won't be paying any gate fees.
Also, none of this affects westbound traffic. Since the tolls are one-way eastbound, the Port Authority could keep that XBL round the clock and just reverse direction without losing any toll money. Sure, they'd cause the mother of all Manhattan traffic jams at first, but then people would get used to it, and more of them would take the bus.
All told, it makes sense that the Port Authority would drag its feet on setting up a second XBL. It also explains that they want it to be high-occupancy or toll, not a bus-only lane, even though that would significantly limit its effectiveness. P recommends pressuring the Port Authority to take a larger vision beyond their bottom line - which would be nice if it works. The only other solutions I can think of are to raise tolls on both cars and buses, or to build a new terminal somewhere else and charge for it.
Getting back to TJ's question, here's a pretty clear case where relying on car use to subsidize transit is unsustainable if we really want people to shift away from cars to transit. The good news is that if you build your transit right, as ridership goes up, so does profitability, so eventually either the passengers would pay for all the operating costs, but even if you don't, if enough people use the system, a consensus in favor of collecting taxes to fund "our transit" will probably form.