Monday, May 12, 2008

Returning to the Path of Fiscal Responsibility

What do John McCain, PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson), and the national debt have in common, besides all being very old? More than you might think!

America’s national debt is almost $9.4 trillion, a stack of $100 bills almost 6,300 miles high. That’s over $30,000 per legal resident, an already ominous figure growing rapidly with no end in sight. While most of the mass media lavishes attention on the rants of Jeremiah Wright (no relation), the federal government’s fiscal situation worsens, the dollar weakens, and the nation’s aging infrastructure further deteriorates. In March, an elevated section of I-95 in Philadelphia almost collapsed but nobody but truckers and Philly commuters paid much attention. On Wednesday, April 30, a fire near the PATH’s Christopher Street station shut down the 33rd Street-Journal Square and 33rd Street-Hoboken lines, forcing tens of thousands of people to find alternate ways of returning to their homes or cars in New Jersey.

PATH responded reasonably well to the fiasco -- nobody was hurt and service was restored the next morning. But as I waited for the E train to take me to the World Trade Center so I could transfer to PATH’s still functioning WTC-Hoboken line, and as I crammed into the car gizzard to gizzard with other disgruntled commuters, I wondered if there might be a better way. And there it was, behind the rotund woman with the oversized purse! PATH is celebrating its centennial by reminding commuters that it began life as a private company, the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad. That company eventually went bankrupt, the story goes, and the beneficent government, in the form of the Port Authority, stepped in to provide cheap, reliable transportation under the mighty Hudson.

The real story is more complex. Myriad government regulations pushed the H&M, and many other fine American railroads, into bankruptcy. Even with the fare increase, the PATH system is indeed cheap. Anyone who has used it, however, knows that the stations are oppressively hot and dank and the rides slow, herky jerky, and crowded. The system is in the middle of getting a long overdue facelift but the improvements made thus far have been marginal at best. And much of the money for those improvements, and indeed the system’s day-to-day operations, originate in cross subsidies from the Port Authority’s more lucrative assets, like its bridges. Were the Port Authority a for-profit company, it would have long since sold PATH to an entity better able to run it. If New Jersey’s recent abortive attempt to sell its turnpike is any indication, however, a proposal to privatize PATH would be a non-starter even though its sale to a competent private owner would likely lead to better service for commuters and a reduced strain on taxpayers.

It’s ironic that the victors in the Cold War still cling tenaciously to remnants of communism like state ownership of mass transportation infrastructure. Even more ironic are voters who complain about big government, high taxes, and fare increases but who refuse to take obvious steps toward reducing them. I’ve little doubt that John McCain (well, his staff) can find many hundreds of billions to try to trim from the bloated federal budget. I’m less confident, however, that Americans are prepared to allow the government to return important services to the private sector. Until voters are ready to let the market work, the national debt clock is going to continue to spin wildly upward as our dreams for future generations grow ever more pessimistic.

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