Ground Zero’s Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH )Transportation Hub will be a spectacular addition to Lower Manhattan’s urban fabric. This politically-driven trophy infrastructure project, justified by fake numbers, is an even more spectacular demonstration of the senescence of the 20th century’s primary municipal finance innovation. Public authorities now sap resources for public infrastructure instead of building them.
Even the New York Times’ usually gimlet-eyed real estate reporter David Dunlap got taken in: he justifies the $3.94 billion project (which, compared to original estimates, is twice as costly and will take twice the time to build), cooing, “Whatever the price, New York received an enduring landmark in exchange” and compares it to Grand Central Terminal. But while the Calatrava hub will be on the scale of Grand Central, which was built as a national transportation hub equivalent to one of today’s major airports, the new hub will serve only a small fraction of the passengers.
Currently, there are on the order of 200,000 rail commutes into and out of Grand Central each weekday (based on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s reported 81.7 million annual East-of-Hudson commutes). Dunlap is an order of magnitude off when he claims that the Calatrava hub will be a destination for the “200,000 or so commuters traveling daily to and from New Jersey.” Total PATH weekday ridership is reportedly 262,000, which is consistent with the Port Authority’s reported 76.6 million annual system riders. In 2004, when the PATH station reopened post-September 11, the Port Authority exulted that weekday ridership exceeded 30,000 riders. Wall Street-area employment has changed little since 2004, so there is no way that the Calatrava hub will draw 200,000 commuters.
Thus, at twice the real-dollar cost of Grand Central, the New York region is getting a boondoggle that will serve approximately 15% of the commuters. As the Times’ own Joe Nocera has reported, the Calatrava transit hub, along with other exorbitant Ground Zero projects, has led to jacking up tolls on regional bridges, making the regional transportation network more expensive for the users who rely on it.
The Ground Zero infrastructure debacle is hardly unique. As Steven Malanga has noted, public authorities allow unelected quasi-governmental bodies to issue debt, secured by project revenues, that is formally off the books of states and municipalities, though there is usually a Fannie-Freddie-style implied guarantee. Politicians, who appoint public authority boards, are ecstatic, since they can cut ribbons for glamorous projects while someone else is responsible for the tab — at least until the public authority runs into trouble, as in the Harrisburg, PA bankruptcy. When lawmakers consider revisions to deductions under the Internal Revenue Code, they should consider eliminating the triple-tax-exempt status of authority debt. Then, politicians who want to build monuments to themselves can do it on the books, in the full light of day.