Policy Documents

Hostage to NJ Transit

William McGurn –
February 1, 2005


New York Post

November 17, 2004

circ. 620,080

“MASS transit was never meant to be a luxury.”

With these extraordinary words a representative of NJ Transit once “answered” my complaint about a string of delays on my line. The words come back to me today, amid NJ Transit’s announcement that it will be thumping for a fare hike of as much as 15 percent to close a looming $65 million budget gap.

Let me say up front: Asking customers to pay for the services they use is perfectly reasonable.

But that’s just the issue.

Because when it comes to modern mass transit--especially for those who rely on the Government of New Jersey to get us to and from work each day--what’s missing is precisely the buyer-and-seller relationship that disciplines and directs markets.

And perhaps only in a state where the taxman can define people making $500,000 as millionaires could a customer-service employee talk of luxury. Certainly no one who’s ever stood on a platform and listened to the M.A.S.H.-era speakers repeating “The train to New York will be 10 to 15 minutes late” an hour after its scheduled arrival could ever confuse NJ Transit with a luxury.

In most other American cities, it’s true, the lack of population density is one key reason market-friendly mass transit solutions tend to take a back seat to massive public subsidy. But New York doesn’t have that excuse.

As The Heartland Institute’s Wendell Cox points out, the “two million workers in the 10-square mile area south of 59th Street” mean a market for mass transit already exists. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, if mass transit can’t make it in New York, it can’t make it anywhere.

Indeed, the numbers hint at a growing demand just waiting to be met by some entrepreneurial soul. Metropolitan New York already accounts for 40 percent of all mass-transit passenger miles in the country. The growth, moreover, is coming from New Jersey: The Regional Plan Association reports that over the past two decades “89 percent of all new suburban commuters [have come] from west of the Hudson.”

The way to meet this challenge, suggests Cox, is for NJ Transit to start contracting out everything it can. Beyond yielding cost savings, such a move would inject some badly needed competition into the equation by threatening private operators with the loss of their routes if they failed to perform.

Other cities have already begun. Most notable is the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which recently took its commuter-rail contract away from Congressionally Subsidized Railways (better known as Amtrak) and awarded it to a European-based concern. And Stockholm, Sweden cut costs and raised productivity when it contracted out its rail and subway systems almost a decade ago.

If NJ Transit did the same, it wouldn’t eliminate real constraints, e.g., the shortage of track space at Penn Station. But introducing private contractors to run the lines would be the first step toward generating more market-oriented responses to problems. And paying passengers might finally be treated as customers instead of what we are today: hostages.

To put this all in perspective, the brochure for my 1910 home in suburban Madison boasts that the “fastest train” will get you to Manhattan in 47 minutes. The same brochure goes on to advertise the rail line (then called the Lackawanna) as a name synonymous with “dependable time,” “sweet, clean cars,” and “polite employees.”

In the century since, quantum improvements in communications and transportation technology now allow New Jersey residents like me to fly direct from Newark to Hong Kong in 16 hours and to use our cell phones or Blackberries to reach friends in Asia and Europe on our train ride home.

But the daily commute itself remains largely what it was 100 years ago. Even by New Jersey standards, that’s embarrassing.

William McGurn, a veteran of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, National Review, and the Far East Economic Review, is now writing a weekly Post column. E-mail: wmcgurn@nypost.com