Home MTA EconomicsRavitch Commission Kheel and Co. propose free transit, again

Kheel and Co. propose free transit, again

by Benjamin Kabak

Remember the Kheel plan, a Ted Kheel-funded study by Charles Komanoff and other transit experts? In it, the study’s creators proposed a way to fund the MTA via a steep congestion fee while keeping transit free. While it’s a very revolutionary plan, it hasn’t been embraced politically.

Well, as Ben Fried at Streetsblog reported this morning, Kheel is unveiling a new version of the plan. Kheel apparently doesn’t like the Ravitch plan. He calls it an immobility tax and doesn’t think it addresses the problems of congestion and car overuse that plague New York.

“The Ravitch Immobility Tax is a 1970’s-era plan that disconnects transit and traffic, making no real impact on the congestion problem that chokes our regional economy,” Kheel said in a press release. “The Ravitch Plan ignores the staggering social cost to the city of automobile traffic, leaving drivers to pay little for mass transit, and imposing the burden instead on vulnerable segments of our society that can ill afford it in these times. Instead of taxing jobs during the largest period of unemployment in recent history, we need an innovative plan that fuels economic growth, fixes traffic, and provides long-term benefit for working New Yorkers.”

Rather, Kheel proposes free subways except at rush hour and higher tolls for all. Kheel’s new plan, according to Fried, includes the following:

  • A dramatic cut in subway fares (75 percent on average), including a complete fare elimination on weekends and holidays, overnight and mid-day,
  • A variable fare during the weekday peak periods that’s lower than the current fare;
  • Complete fare elimination on all NYC Transit buses at all times;
  • Congestion pricing on car and truck traffic into the Manhattan Central Business District (CBD), with tolls varying sharply by time of day and averaging $16 per trip;
  • A 46% surcharge on medallion taxi fares (note that medallion taxis, and no other vehicles, would be exempt from the congestion pricing charge);
  • 25% higher tolls on MTA bridges that don’t directly access the Manhattan CBD.

Using their comprehensive proprietary model of the city’s transit system and road network, Kheel’s team concluded that the plan would:

  • Yield over $1 billion in net revenue — sufficient to wipe out more than three-fourths of the MTA’s projected FY-2009 deficit;
  • Increase overall subway ridership by 12% even as use of the system shrinks by 6% in the morning peak hour (8-9 a.m.) and 10% in the evening peak hour (5-6 p.m.);
  • Raise traffic speeds in the chronically gridlocked CBD by one-third during the day and one-quarter overall, while also boosting travel speeds throughout the City.

I want to like this plan, and I want to support. But something gnaws at me. Maybe it’s the fact that Ravitch’s plan generates more than the MTA needs so they can help fund the capital campaign. Maybe it’s the fact that Kheel’s plan is just too far out there for most New Yorkers to appreciate. Sadly, I think Kheel’s plan will forever remain a good idea in principle but will never be a New York reality.

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Marc Shepherd December 10, 2008 - 4:59 pm

I like the concept, but wiping out 3/4ths of the deficit isn’t good enough. What about the other 1/4th?

I think subways and buses still need to cost something at all times, to prevent troublemakers from riding the rails because they have nothing better to do. An extremely low fare at off-peak periods, such as fifty cents, would suffice.

I also think that buses cannot be free at rush hours, because it would encourage fare arbitrage. Some people would take convoluted bus routes to work, to avoid paying a fare. This would over-tax bus routes that are at capacity as it is.

Alon Levy December 10, 2008 - 9:42 pm

Not only is Kheel making up numbers, but also he’s taken to trashing proposals that don’t bear his name. If he were younger, he’d be Michael Bloomberg.

Scott E December 10, 2008 - 10:36 pm

One problem with this plan is that it doesn’t touch any of the behind-the-scenes fare collection infrastructure. To support peak-hour riders, you still need to have Metrocard machines in every station, Metrocards, functional turnstiles, and all the data/telephone lines that connect these machines to each other and to the credit card companies.

You also need additional elevators for stations being made ADA accessible – from the street to the area outside the turnstiles, then from the area inside the turnstiles to the platforms.

There is a significant cost to maintaining a fare-collection system, regardless of whether it’s operational for 4 hours or 24 hours in a day. I wonder how this factors into the plan. (which, I admit, I haven’t read, but I have my doubts about…)

Jonathan P December 11, 2008 - 12:04 pm

No fare at all throughout the entire system? An almost free rush hour? Free rush hour bus? $16 toll to Manhattan? Plus bridges/tunnels increase? So stupid. It’s gonna make Manhattan buses overcrowded, and most routes are already over capacity. I get you wana discourage traffic to Manhattan, but cars are also part of Manhattan commerce. A nominal $4-6 fee past Manhattan w. a heavily discounted 50c fare for cabs (which would charge $1 from cab riders passing 60-86 street) would generate enough to allow heavily discounted rides on weekends and lower transit costs by 25% all other times. (Except Rush Hour, which would remain the same as today) Plus more money in the MTA’s pocketbook would allow for additional capital expenses and maintenance costs. Plus continual government help (as always for public transit) and possibly some investments on the side (buying apartments and selling off condos or offering rent) and added fares to the system would tally up to quite a bit for transit investment. A subway connection to Staten Island by either the 1 by South Ferry (far too expensive) or the R by Bay Ridge (feasible, but would take about 1 hr to get to Manhattan) would have to be the 1st major investment besides the 2nd ave subway. 2nd would be even longer stations to allow for more cars in crowded lines. 3rd would be to expand the 7 and L trains down 11-12th avenue, and one would run along 11-12th till they connect, and expand past Canarsie to Starret City for the L and further towards Long Island for the 7. The 4th capital investment would be to extend the N train to LaGuardia Airport. The 5th capital expansion (if increased funds allow) would be to make an underground Express line that would be fully automated (similar to Airport trains) and would circle (or a long oval) from Brooklyn (3 stops) to Manhattan (2 stops: Downtown and midtown) to Bronx (2 stops) and to Queens (3 stops). It would be an additional $1 fare and would stop at only the most well-connected stops at each borough. (including Jamaica or JFK) It would be a free transfer going into Manhattan because it would be an additional expense to take something out of the way, and not many riders would board it. SO a free transfer would only decrease ridership, although a pilot program when it opens up would charge a fare no matter direction.

Crazy ideas of mine, but w/e

Alon Levy December 11, 2008 - 3:39 pm

Going with your five additional extensions:
1. No argument there. I’m also glad you consider an SI-Manhattan extension seriously. I’d rather not have it be the 1, since it would make the 1 the longest route in the system, but instead have the SIR connect to a new commuter terminal at Fulton Street.
2. I doubt this is feasible. It will require massive station closures, and probably won’t cost much less than just building new lines to parallel them.
3. That doesn’t serve any transit need. It’s better to just extend the 7 one stop, with a proviso for an extension into Jersey if politics permits. The Hudson Yards area has no need for extra transit – not enough people live there.
4. I’d rather extend the N along Astoria or Ditmars, with a LaGuardia shuttle connecting to the N at Junction, and possibly continuing down to meet the 7. This will cost about the same, since the shuttle can be elevated and quiet, but provide additional service to the East Elmhurst area, and take some of the load off the 7.
5. It won’t work. Successful circumferential lines require good connections. That’s why the G is so bad – it connects poorly to the radial lines. There’s already a proposal for a better circumferential line, running from Bay Ridge to Yankee Stadium via the Bay Ridge Line and Hell Gate Bridge, with stops every half a mile and connections to all other subway lines except the 1.

MDC December 13, 2008 - 2:06 pm

I’m no expert, but it seems to me that varying the subway fare at different times, according to some complicated formula, would probably mystify and frustrate most commuters.

People like to know how much transit they’re getting for their money when they buy a Metrocard. Better to keep a flat fare (or the unlimited ride cards).


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