Is it finally time for free subways? Inside
Ted Kheel’s 42-year-old plan to make it happen.
By Christopher Bonanos Published Dec 17, 2007
Illustration by Dienststelle 75
(Photo: Patrick McMullan)
fare is going up, even as the city says that it’s getting
serious about reducing traffic congestion. But Theodore Kheel
thinks we’ve waited long enough for a transportation revolution.
In fact, the 93-year-old labor lawyer has been waiting four
decades for his chance to take the city back from the car,
and he has a plan: Double the tolls on the bridges and tunnels,
and use the revenue to sweep away the turnstiles and fareboxes.
The subways and buses would be free, and commuter rail would
Kheel first floated his idea in 1965. “I was on a television
program in December—the [transit workers’] contract was scheduled
to expire on January 1,” he says. “And they said, ‘Where’s
the money coming from?’ And I said, ‘Double the bridge and
tunnel tolls.’ And that became a page-one story.” He was rebuffed
by Austin Tobin, then the head of the Port Authority, and
by Robert Moses, both of whom said the idea was illegal. Tobin
had, in fact, signed a state covenant in 1962 prohibiting
the PA from spending money on any mass transit (except the
path trains that it ran). He then diverted the agency’s huge
cash flow into building the World Trade Center.
Kheel fought the covenant to the Supreme Court and lost, and
although it was later repealed, it applied to the 30-year
bonds the Authority held. In short, the PA couldn’t spend
anything on trains until the last of those bonds matured—which
they did, finally, in 2007. And Kheel outlasted them.
To make his point, Kheel’s Nurture New York’s Nature Foundation
has subsidized a $100,000 study by a group endearingly called
the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility. An early look of
its scheme reveals that inbound drivers would be charged $16,
about what Londoners pay now. About 20 percent of drivers
would then opt to leave their cars at home. The remaining
tolls would more than replace the $2 fare we now pay. Fare-collection
costs—now 6 percent of the MTA budget—would be diverted into
handling the huge swell in ridership.
Get him going on this subject, and Kheel turns it almost into
a moral crusade. “This is one of the major issues of our time.
Right now, I’ve never seen the automobile traffic as dense
as it is, and the cost of that is tremendous. We’re not going
to tell people not to ride automobiles; we’re simply going
to say you ought to pay your share.” There’s another irony
in all this: Kheel, afflicted with spinal stenosis, can’t
handle the subway stairs anymore. “I’ll be a loser by free
transportation, because I have a car and a chauffeur,” he
says. “That’s the way I have to get around. It’ll cost me.”
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