Thursday, December 31, 2009

They're not in Woodhaven's corner

This breaks my heart. I am totally serious. I really like Woodhaven: it's a cute little neighborhood tucked away under the el, with a great shoe store and a couple nice parks nearby. It's very sad to see them treated this way.

The proposed MTA service cuts will deprive Woodhaven of Z skip-stop train service to Manhattan, and the Q56 bus from Jamaica to East New York. This was on the front page of last week's Queens Chronicle.

Concerned residents called a press conference and invited their alleged representatives to speak out on their behalf. Assemblymember Miller and Councilmembers Ulrich and Crowley are too new to know where they really stand, but Crowley's cousin did speak in favor of congestion pricing back in 2007. Of course they did attack the MTA instead of their colleagues in the State Legislature who cut its funding.

State Senator Joe Addabbo, who this summer sat on his hands as his colleagues killed bridge tolls to fund the MTA, did not attend the meeting, but his office issued a lame press release putting all the blame on the authority.

The biggest hypocrite has to be Assemblyman Rory Lancman of Fresh Meadows, whose district stretches down to pick up the few white votes left in Woodhaven. You may remember Lancman as the Assembly's point buffoon during the congestion pricing debates. Yes, he's the one who released one of many unworkable "alternative plans" to congestion pricing, notably involving $500 million to improve bus service.

Okay, Rory, where's that $500 million? The MTA could really use it now. What's that? You cut the budget by $53 million instead? Of course, Lancman seems to have completely forgotten that proposal, falling back on his tried-and-true blame game: "The MTA needs to start at the top. It needs to reform itself. It needs to restructure itself."

The most depressing thing is that the Woodhaven community leaders seem to have fallen for that trick. Back in March, the Chronicle reported on the efforts of Maria Thomson, the executive director of the Greater Woodhaven Development Corporation and the Woodhaven BID, to prevent cuts to the Q56 (emphasis mine):
In her testimony to the MTA board during its public hearings, Thomson asked the members, "What are you thinking? How can you discontinue a bus that has no replacement?"

Thomson has reached out to a number of elected officials to make them aware of the situation. "They are lobbying for us," she said and working on the community’s behalf to get the line reinstated in the budget.

Your faith is touching, Ms. Thomson, but you do know that legislators don't have to lobby anyone but their colleagues and maybe the Governor to get a budget increase? How many times will you reach out to the same elected officials after you've seen them cut funding when they promised to increase it? Please don't tell me that you're planning to support Addabbo and Lancman's re-elections campaigns next year after all this?

Sadly, I'm guessing that she will. The Project Woodhaven blogger - clearly an ally of hers in this fight - ends the story with this line: "Well, the ball is rolling -- and we've got the right people in our corner." As long as they keep thinking that, nothing's going to change.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Let's not bring the land back to us, either

Every time I hear some breathless article about how we'll all be "urban farming" I have the urge to write a nice long post about why that's a bad idea. Fortunately, Matt Yglesias and Jeb Reed have done that so I don't have to.

First off, livestock are different from plants. A few sheep, goats or alpacas on a block would probably be okay, but I don't want to smell cows or pigs under my window, and I don't really want to hear chickens or donkeys while I'm trying to sleep.

But don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to stop anyone from raising plants in cities. My wife is cultivating an avocado grove in our kitchen, to accompany the aloe veriscaping in our living room. A neighbor has given me some great tomatoes from her window box. It's always nice to see a house with a little garden, or a community garden on a formerly abandoned plot of land. I'd rather see a farm than a parking lot. I'm all for composting, wherever the compost winds up. I don't have anything against anyone who wants to do urban gardening, even on a large scale.

I do have some problems with urban agriculture, though. They stem from the idea that it will somehow save us from global warming, pollution or some vague evil that haunts cities. This is a relatively new variant of the tired old back-to-the-land religion, combined with the "shop locally" movement, which quickly becomes absurd if taken too literally, and it doesn't really make any more sense than either of them. Yglesias says it all: we have cities for a reason, and it isn't so that we can grow acres of chard.

Bottom line: urban agriculture is not sustainable on a large scale. It will not save us from global warming, it will not provide enough fresh vegetables to cure obesity in the black population, and I can't think of any other claim that its proponents have made that passes the sniff test.

Why does it matter if the promises of urban agriculture are false? Because those false promises are used to ask for subsidies. Sometimes they're subsidies on a massive scale, like the "Hanging Gardens of Barcelona" proposal that Reed lampoons. Sometimes they're MacArthur Genius grants as described by Elizabeth Royte. And just about everything in between.

That's money that could be going to all kinds of better things, like more effective ways of fighting global warming or obesity. For example, every fifty thousand dollars spent on urban farming is at least one less bus driver (the actual number will depend on the city's labor market, collective bargaining agreement and farebox recovery ratio).

Urban farming also has the potential to be the excuse for much antisocial behavior in cities. There's going to be someone who insists on having a donkey in their backyard, but that's not the worst. I've already been chewed out for wanting to reapportion some parking spaces - by liberals who felt that they had an unquestionable right to drive in the city because of course they need the car to drive to their farm upstate! Now that they can have a farm right here in the city, every liberal can drive an SUV without criticism: you see, they need it to pick up the wood for the planting boxes, to bring the excess compost to the recycling station, blah blah blah.

You want to grow collards in your window box, or potatoes in the community garden? Be my guest. But just say no to subsidies for urban farming. Use the money for transit, or even for farms near the city. And for god's sake, don't hand people another excuse to sanctimoniously drive in the city.

Friday, December 25, 2009

No widening without tolls

As I wrote last week, the State and the City of New York have been underfunding the MTA for the past fifteen years, but they seem to have enough money that they plan to spend $500 million to rebuild the Brooklyn Bridge, $700 million to rebuild the Kosciuszko Bridge, $1 billion to rebuild the Goethals Bridge and $250 million to rebuild the BQE just south of the Brooklyn Bridge in Carroll Gardens. That $2.4 billion they plan to spend on the roads could fill the $400 million hole in the MTA budget for six years - or even pay back some of the MTA's crushing debt. And that's not even touching the $10 billion the state plans to spend to rebuild the Tappan Zee Bridge and a section of the Thruway.

Even worse, much of this money isn't even allocated for reconstructing the bridges or highways, but for widening them. As I wrote before, the State DOT is fond of lying about their control over a highway. They claim that the highways and bridges need to be "modernized" and "brought up to standards" for safety reasons, but each of these facilities is capable of carrying two lanes of traffic with plenty of room. They're only unsafe because the DOT has tried to cram three lanes in where there's only enough space for two.

In the case of the Major Deegan, canceling the widening saved the State between $100 and $170 million dollars, about half the cost of the project. If that's true of the other projects, we could save $1.2 billion just by doing that. Of course, nobody seems to know what happened to the money saved from the Deegan widening, so the DOT would probably try to hang onto that money and use it for highways upstate, but if the Governor were determined he could put a stop to that.

Whether it's $2.4 billion or only $1.2 billion, a big chunk will come from general sales and income taxes paid by people who don't even drive. With our current climate situation, to make transit riders pay to widen highways for the elites, worsening the air, wasting gasoline, increasing congestion and inviting more death and destruction onto our streets, is downright criminal.

If drivers are going to get good roads, and wider roads, they should pay something for them. At one point there were tolls on all the East River bridges and even the Kosciuszko's predecessor, the Penny Bridge. In 1911, Mayor Gaynor removed the nickel toll on the East River Bridges, apparently reasoning that the cost of constructing the bridges had already been raised. Since then we have had to pay billions to maintain and reconstruct those bridges.

"Gridlock Sam" Schwartz has proposed removing tolls from all the bridges in the city that don't either cross the Hudson or enter the Manhattan central business districts. As a compromise to get congestion pricing to pass, it might have been worth it, but without tolls on the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro bridges, it would be a disaster, and in fact the lack of a toll on the Kosciuszko is still bad for Brooklyn and Queens.

Some people seem confused as to why the state and city would have to contribute to the MTA's funding. In part it's because we insist on such a low fare for the MTA, and in part because we contribute so much to the competing bridges. We should not continue to use general sales and income tax dollars to maintain and widen roads and bridges for people who think they're too good to take the train. If there isn't a toll on the East River bridges, there should be a toll on the Kosciuszko. And if the legislature won't agree to any tolls, then we shouldn't pay to maintain the bridges. Just close them, like the Champlain Bridge, until the drivers agree to pay.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Flexing stimulus funds

Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers' Campaign suggests taking $141 million from the MTA's capital budget and transferring it to the operating budget. His proposal has been echoed all over the media, including on Thursday by Congressman McMahon.

The Tri-State Transportation Campaign has rightly said that using stimulus funds intended for capital projects should be "a last resort." Most of those "capital expenditures" are on things like signal replacement that are just as essential to the operation of the system as the train operators' salaries. "Deferred maintenance" is what made the subways such an unpleasant, scary place in the 1970s and '80s.

I think that Russianoff is about half right: we should flex stimulus dollars to fund operating expenses for the subways and buses. But not the stimulus dollars that were dedicated to things like the Second Avenue Subway and signal replacement. There's half a billion dollars that the City DOT plans to spend on the Brooklyn Bridge, including fifty million in stimulus funds. Just take that and use it to pay the train and bus operators (and of course, the debt service on the capital plans that Russianoff encouraged us to support in past years).

Let me see if I can take on the top objections. First of all, it's illegal, the money has been allocated to the bridge already. Well, since most of our leaders are also lawmakers, I've noticed that most legality objections go away when there's enough political will.

Second, that money is for safety! The bridge is structurally deficient! If we don't fix it now it will fall into the river like that bridge in Minneapolis! It's true that there are corroded anchorages and supports, but we could extend the life on them quite a bit by simply not driving as many cars over them. If we were to close one lane of the bridge in each direction, I bet we could go for another twenty years without replacing those parts.

Third, the money is for reducing congestion and improving safety! Most of the money will be spent to widen the approaches from one lane to two. Do you want to pollute even more by filling the approaches with idling cars? Don't you care about safety? The main problem of the bridge is trying to fit too many cars into a limited space. Widening the approaches will not solve that problem, it will just move the idling cars from the approaches to the bridge itself. The high capacity of the bridge creates a danger zone all around it, and widening the approaches will just encourage drivers to speed. Removing a lane in each direction from the bridge will discourage motorists from taking it, thus reducing congestion and improving safety.

Fourth, it's an iconic symbol of New York! Do you want it to look like crap? The subway is also an iconic symbol of New York. Which do tourists see more of? Plus, removing cars from two of the lanes would free up space for bicycles, removing them from the walkway and making it much nicer for tourists on foot.

Just a few weeks ago, activists united to defeat a similarly misguided proposal to widen the Major Deegan Expressway in the Bronx, saving over $100 million dollars. If we can get $500 million from the Brooklyn Bridge, plus $400 million from the Kosciuszko Bridge widening $250 million from the BQE widening and $1 billion from the Goethals Bridge widening, I think that'll take care of the MTA's needs for a while.

Whatever happened to that $100 million from the Deegan widening, anyway?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Network effects in transit

A while back I wrote about the notion of consumer surplus. It's the economic idea that while there may be a price that brings in more money than any other single price, a seller can often make more money by charging different prices to different people. This is because some people will simply not buy if the price is too high.

Some sellers simply use the consumer surplus to maximize their profits on that one item. Others will use the profit on one item to sell another below cost. Sometimes this is done to get customers' attentions, as with free giveaways. This is also known as a loss leader.

A similar strategy is when sellers see themselves as offering a certain class or suite of products. They know that their customers value the fact that they offer the complete line, because of one-stop shopping. Even if they lose money on one product, they will profit overall.

This is one of the reasons that even profitable transit providers will run "empty buses" or train cars (they usually have at least one passenger). As many of the commenters on the recent Streetsblog thread point out, having reasonably frequent off-peak service - for return trips, shopping, transfers, or even just to provide that extra wiggle room in case the passenger is running late - increases the ridership during peak times. Even if they lose money on one bus run, they will profit overall. This is true of other cost-benefit calculations, like energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

Well, except that most of them don't actually profit. I'm reminded of the old joke, "We lose money on every sale, but we make it up on volume!" If the average farebox recovery is less than 1 (or if the average greenhouse gas emissions are too high), then you need to do something else to achieve your goals. But the point is that the not-quite-empty buses sometimes don't have as bad an effect on the overall averages as you might think.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bad transit funding frames

When you think of the word "bailout," what comes to mind?

If you're a real old salt, you might think of a leaky boat (or a good boat in a bad storm) that keeps taking on water. Bailing out is throwing the water out with a pail. And you'd want to know who was the jerk that took the boat out in the first place without properly sealing it.

You might also think of someone who's been arrested and is offered the opportunity to post bail. Bailing them out is going to the court with enough money to get them released. And you'd want to know who was the jerk that went and got arrested in the first place.

If you're thinking more of current events, you would probably think of the homeowners who bought houses with mortgages they couldn't afford to pay. Or you might think of all the banks, investment firms and insurance companies that wound up losing so much on defaulted mortgages that they couldn't afford to repay their debts or deposits. In that case, bailing out is when the government arranges for a loan to be forgiven or renegotiated, or simply pays it back on behalf of the debtor. And in that case you want to know who was the jerk that took out a loan in the first place without making sure they had enough money to pay it back.

The boat scenario, the jail scenario and the banking scenario are what the linguist Charles Fillmore calls frames, and what his colleague George Lakoff has used to explain why some political arguments succeed or fail regardless of whether they're logically sound, or even true. The boat bailout frame contains other concepts such as sea, oars, rain and tarp. The jail bailout frame contains concepts like bondsman, recognizance and court date. The financial bailout frame contains concepts like foreclosure, derivatives, the Fed and TARP.

They're different frames, but they have a lot in common, and the term bailout was first applied to the financial world as a metaphor to indicate that someone was coming to the rescue of someone else who was in trouble. Note that in all the cases they usually got themselves into the trouble, and the person bailing them out is not necessarily doing it out of kindness.

So now what do you think of when you think of an MTA bailout? You think "Okay, now who are the jerks that got themselves into this mess, and why do I have to come pull them out of it?" MTA rescue is almost as bad: you're thinking, "What, they need to be rescued again? What are they doing that they keep getting into these kinds of situations?"

In the typical bailout there is no external agent who's causing the trouble. The fault is the person who's in trouble. Similar with the kind of rescue being evoked here: it's not the innocent maiden being rescued from the dragon, it's those overconfident mountain climbers having to be rescued from the storm again.

Lakoff's argument is that frames bypass the logical parts of our brains and go straight to our emotions, so you have to be really careful to evoke the right ones. Using the word "bailout" or "rescue" in an article or blog post about a financial crisis is pretty much guaranteed to get a big chunk of the readership wondering whether they didn't bring it on themselves.

Of course, they didn't - not completely at least. Pataki was the first to cut the State's contribution to the MTA, and Giuliani cut the city contribution. That has continued under Bloomberg, Spitzer and Paterson - although to be fair, the legislature cut some of that money on its own. And when Bloomberg and later Paterson tried to toll the city's bridges to make up at least part of those cuts, the State Legislature voted against the plans. In this case, more than two-thirds of the shortfall is the documented fault of the legislature: they miscalculated how much tax revenue it would take to properly fund the MTA, and they refused to cut anything else from the budget, forcing Paterson to cut everything across the board. The MTA may be partly at fault, but in this case, the fault is mostly that of Shelly Silver and Pedro Espada.

This means that when people use words like "bailout" and "rescue package" to describe what's going on with the MTA, they're obscuring an important part of the story. No wonder the comments sections of the major papers are full of people who think that the MTA doesn't deserve the money. The frames lead them to that conclusion.

Now, it may be entirely innocent, that these reporters and bloggers are just repeating what they've heard from other sources, but it's still counterproductive. Anyone who repeats these words together is really not doing the MTA any favors.

If you want to do the right thing, use words that will portray the situation in a light that fits more with the reality, and point towards ways to properly fund the agency. Contribution suggests a shared endeavor for the good of all. So does paying their fair share. Investment implies that the money will probably pay off in the long run.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The anti-transit shell game

Jarrett Walker brings this to our attention: Rupert MurdochLeonard Asper's National Post is trying to bring in the pageviews with a new "rethinking green" series. Recycling hurts the environment! Feed the world by growing fish in the desert! At first I thought it was just being contrarian to attract attention, like the Freakonomics guys, but then I realized that there's something more sinister at work.

Reversing climate change and cleaning up the mess we've made will require tremendous sacrifices, and for a democratic society to commit to sacrifices on that scale there has to be a clear understanding of the danger at hand, and a strong consensus about the best action to take. People like Leonard Asper and Wendell Cox are bent on preserving the advantages that their class has appropriated over the years, and they are willing to sacrifice the welfare of their grandchildren for this.

They are also willing to lie and cheat to do it, and they've realized that you don't need clarity or consensus to maintain the status quo. All you need is fear, uncertainty and doubt. If enough people say, "but I heard that recycling doesn't actually accomplish all that much," and "hydrogen-powered fish farms in Alberta will save us," then the consensus breaks down and Asper's buddies get to continue blasting the air conditioning as they drive their Escalades to the golf course in Scottsdale.

To break the pro-transit coalition among environmentalists, social justice activists, livable streets proponents and train buffs, Kevin Libin has a simple message, courtesy of Wendell Cox and Randal O'Toole: transit is less efficient than cars and pollutes more. Transit advocates like to tell you how much energy a full bus saves, and how much less carbon it spews into the atmosphere, but really they're living in a fantasy world. Nobody actually rides transit, so the buses pollute more per passenger than cars. Libin brings in some guy named Tom Rubin to deliver the solution: just relax and let the March of Technology make more fuel-efficient cars, and everything will be fine.

Nobody seems to disagree with O'Toole's numbers on the average efficiencies of transit systems, and I think every transit advocate should have a response to them. Commenters in the Streetsblog thread have made a number of important points: one near-empty bus can attract passengers who will also fill another bus (Hilary Kitasei, Jeff, Eric B and Librarian); it's important to look at the lifecycle energy use and pollution of each vehicle, not just while transporting people (Ben); and late night service gets drunk drivers off the road (Zach).

Jarrett's response is to point out that there are other reasons for transit: what he calls coverage services exist to "provide a little bit of service everywhere regardless of ridership, both to meet demands for 'equity' and to serve the needs of transit-dependent persons." His point, as I understand it, is that these coverage services account for the discrepancy between the potential efficiency of transit and its actual efficiency.

Libin actually addresses that in his article:
More roads, and more efficient roads, still won't address public transit's original, non-environmental purpose: providing mobility for citizens who lack their own. But where public transit is absent, or impractical, solutions for the small minority totally lacking other means have readily sprung up. Ridesharing applications for smart phones -- users enter their location and desired destination and a cost-conscious carpooler responds -- are already in wide use, Mr. Rubin says. Self-sustaining, small-scale private jitney systems have successfully operated for years in Atlantic City and Puerto Rico (all North America's early public transit systems were privately operated until they were nationalized). And with billions freed up from public transit funds, it appears entirely feasible to simply offer subsidized Prius taxis, or even car subsidies, to the small portion of the public entirely reliant on public mobility.

While taking exception to Libin's condescending frame - I don't "lack my own mobility" any more than some jerk who can't go farther than two blocks without being propelled by government-sponsored oil on government-sponsored roads - I agree with some of his potential strategies. Ridesharing and jitneys have a lot of potential, but as a supplement for transit, not a replacement. The subsidized taxis and cars are complete bullshit, just a way for Libin to gloat at the end, and not worth wasting electrons over.

In addition to Jarrett's response, I have another issue with Libin's argument, which is the matter of land use. It has been amply documented that city dwellers just use less energy than sprawled-out suburbanites. Libin pays lip service to this, but shows that he really doesn't get it:
But the thousands of delivery trucks, taxi drivers, emergency vehicles, service trucks, car-bound workers and buses mean even high-density cities will keep needing highways, ring roads, bridges and flyovers. Meanwhile the massive cost of overhauling cities is just more billions to address an automobile environmental problem that is already on the way to resolving itself -- money that might be better, and more effectively deployed toward other earth-friendly measures, such as reducing traffic congestion.

Well, it's not actually on the way to resolving itself, the overhaul will be done anyway, and transit-oriented lifestyles actually decrease the need for so many of the vehicles that Libin mentions. In addition, it's a feedback loop, one that works in both directions: if transit is better than cars, that encourages more people to use transit, and it becomes that much better.

But I've saved the main against Libin's (and Cox's, and O'Toole's, and Rubin's) argument for last. And that's the fact that this is just a shell game. These people are out to win at any cost, and if you start to win the climate change argument, they'll switch to efficiency. If you make headway in the efficiency argument they'll start talking about how we nasty elitists are trying to take away the True American Dream of living in a home so big you can't clean it by yourself. If you gain ground in the popular opinion argument, they switch back to emissions.

The only way you can win this is by keeping all the advantages of transit in mind:

Providing quality transit isn't just a matter of fairness to the poor, the young, the elderly and the disabled. Shifting people to transit isn't just a matter of clean air, energy efficiency and working towards a better society. It's also about making our streets safe for people of all ages to walk and play, about ending the carnage that kills thousands every year. Randal O'Toole may be able to show that transit is not living up to its potential in one or two of these goals, but he's just not going to be able to make the case that private cars are superior on all five counts.

Why we have government funding

Under Koch, Cuomo and Reagan we saw a reduction in public investment in infrastructure and services: our deteriorating parks, streets and subways allowed Reagan to deliver his famous tax cuts. Under Giuliani and Pataki we got private organizations taking up the slack: business improvement districts cleaned up the streets, and organizations like the Central Park Conservancy maintained the parks.

Of course, this is on a much more local scale: the BIDs and the foundations only pay for individual business districts and parks. If your neighborhood doesn't have enough rich donors, you don't even get a cheapo park conservancy, you just have to deal with inadequate city services. If your business district can't afford to tax its members, you get infrequent garbage collection and rarely seen NYPD patrols. In terms of transportation, we get oil wars and Cash for Clunkers for the rich, while the subway service is being cut.

Since the city, state and feds won't pay to maintain the existing facilities, they won't allow any new ones to be built unless they come with maintenance plans. Thus, the campaign for the Brooklyn Bridge Park rested not on convincing the city to build and maintain it, but convincing the neighbors to allow enough condo and recreational development to be built there so as to pay for the maintenance. The DOT's public plaza program has accomplished what it did only with local partner organizations who pledged to keep the plazas clean and functional.

Now Curbed links to a Post story about one of those plans that's coming apart. The new Hudson River Park was apparently built with the understanding that maintenance would be financed through allowing cars to cross the greenway and park at Pier 40, and eventually through some kind of recreational development on that pier. The neighbors didn't want to see that kind of development, though, and the pier has been deteriorating so that not as many cars can park there. The result is that the park is running out of funds.

Often we don't get a decent perspective on these things, so nobody explains why, for example, Brooklyn Bridge Park advocates were promoting condo construction. This Post article was an exception, though, thanks to one quote:
Geoffrey Croft, president of New York City Park Advocates, said Hudson River Park is falling victim to government refusal to pay for essential services (parks, among them), instead putting the cost on to risky development schemes.

"The problems at Hudson River Park are a perfect example of why these deals aren't in the best interest of the public," Croft said.

I'm so glad that Croft and New York City Park Advocates have come along. Instead of having two sets of parks, one for the rich and one for the poor, they want the government to fund them all. And it sounds like they don't treat it like a welfare system, but as a matter of basic fairness.

They've got an uphill battle in this economic climate, but park maintenance would be a great stimulus program. I've only just heard of them, but they sound like a great organization. We have plenty of organizations arguing for decent transit from a welfare point of view, and others from an environmental standpoint, but I don't know how often I hear it being advocated from a fairness perspective. And of course it'd be nice if we had someone doing this for business districts.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Beyond private and public

There's been some buzz around the web lately about "public-private partnerships," which are apparently the latest word in transit financing. Some are understandably opposed to this because they connect it with "privatization," which is a trend that goes back at least thirty years. But all these different names obscure the fact that governments and private organizations have been interacting for hundreds of years, and that there are common threads throughout.

In the transit field, even the most private carrier relies on some government security, and even the most public agency contracts out some of its services to for-profit companies, buys insurance from private insurers, and sells bonds to private investors. In between there is a range of possibilities; I think it's useful to distinguish them along several axes. The government can have a greater or lesser share in funding the infrastructure or the rolling stock, in paying for operations, in assuming risk, in collecting revenue, and in controlling routes and schedules.

In the example of the New York MTA, the government funds the capital expenses and pays for a dwindling share of operations, but the rest of the operations are funded through fares, tolls, advertising, rent and a jumble of sales and payroll taxes. Although the authority is nominally government-controlled, the government shares de facto power with shifting alliances of real estate firms representing the largest contributors to the mortgage recording taxes, and friends and campaign contributors to various politicians. The risk is mostly borne by the authority, and the MTA buses enjoy a monopoly on most surface routes.

In contrast, the "private" bus lines that used to run in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx were contracted by the New York City Department of Transportation. The buses, and possibly the garages, were paid for and owned by the city. The city paid for the roads and bridges, assumed pretty much all the risk, and guaranteed a monopoly on those routes. I'm not too clear on it, but I believe that the city paid whatever operating costs were not covered by fares, and possibly a small guaranteed profit. I believe the contract that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has with a private consortium to run its commuter rail lines is similar. Although the New York situation evolved out of a legacy system, I believe it is this kind of arrangement that most transit planners think of when they think of privatization.

Then there are the various "private investment" schemes, where the government will sell some of the risk to private firms. In essence, the government is making a bet with the private investors. If farebox revenue goes up, the investors make money; if revenue goes down, people still get transit service. In the "leaseback" arrangement the private investors have no control over fares, timetables or routes, but in other arrangements they could.

In the private commuter bus lines that travel through the Lincoln Tunnel, although the routes and timetables are determined by the companies, there are restrictions as to what changes they can make and how. The operations are paid by fares, with some companies receiving government assistance, and any excess revenue going to corporate profits. The roads, the tunnel and the terminals are mostly paid for by the government and the Port Authority, but the companies pay tolls and gate fees for their use. In most cases, the buses are paid for and owned by the government. Each company has an implied monopoly on its route, and the government cannot legally engage in "destructive competition," although in theory I believe it's possible for one company to challenge another's monopoly. The risk is shared between the government and the operators.

The jitneys that are found in many developing countries, and also here in New York and New Jersey, are subsidized by publicly funded roads, bridges and tunnels, but the buses are usually privately financed, and operations are paid for through revenue collected directly by the operators, with the government taking a share through taxes and tolls and the operators and syndicates dividing the rest. There are usually no timetables; such dispatching as there is is controlled by the syndicates. The routing is sometimes controlled by the government, sometimes by the syndicates or operators. There is no official monopoly, although the syndicates may try to enforce one. Most of the risk is borne by the operators.

In all of these situations, it seems that there is a range of government financing, from infrastructure alone to infrastructure plus rolling stock, to both of those plus operations subsidies. The government can also enforce a monopoly to a greater or lesser extent, and assume a greater or lesser amount of risk. Funding seems to determine control: the more subsidies the government gives, the more control it has over routes and timetables.

Let's go back to that paraphrase of Melissa Thomasson about healthcare economics that I discussed in October:
Melissa Thomasson says that what we have combines the worst of the market and the worst of government. Markets are usually really good at controlling costs. When they work best, products come into existence, like cell phones or stockings. They start expensive, and then they get cheaper and better. But markets don't guarantee that everyone can afford the things they need. Government can be good at that, ensuring universal access. But when you're paying for everybody, it's hard to control costs.

It sounds like the typical "privatization" arrangement that I discussed above is also the worst combination of the market and government, and the "legacy" arrangement we find in New Jersey isn't much better. You get all the rigidity of government and all the greed of the private sector. If you've got a monopoly and rigid control of fares, routes and timetables, you might as well have the government doing it. Otherwise it just sounds like a union-busting tactic.

Selling the risk to private investors sounds like a nice idea until you think that with peak oil, farebox revenue is pretty likely to rise. It seems like a bad idea for governments to turn control over to private entities to eliminate a risk that's actually pretty low.

Meanwhile, in the private situations like the jitneys you do get the creativity of the market and the absorption of risk, and you can still keep the government involved enough to ensure access for all and things like safety, efficiency and clean air. If we want to work towards involving the private sector, that seems like the best arrangement for passengers and for the environment.