[This was originally published on June 20, 2011 and it was posted on a blog for government leaders, October 12, 2009.]
Many governments around the world are struggling to find the best method to get broadband networks created within their areas. (Maybe it is the USA which is especially struggling.)
I thought about some historical precedents for major local infrastructure projects. While the US Interstate Highway system is often cited as such a precedent, it falls short of representing the current debate because no one proposed in the 1950s that we should “let the private sector do it.”
But the huge New York City rail transit system is perhaps a better historical analogy. It is important to note that the way the current system operates – as a single government owned and operated system – is not how it started or operated for many of its early years.
It seems that New York City government used every possible method including:
- Let private companies own, build and run mass transit lines. (Then take them over when they fail – due to underlying economic properties of such infrastructure which makes them more like public goods than private goods that can sustain a profit.)
- Own the rights to the transit line yourself, but let a private company build and operate it.
- Build the transit line yourself, but let a private company operate it.
- Build the transit line and also run it.
- Fake it – act as if a new transit line is going to be run and built by a private company, but do it yourself when no private company does so.
One other aspect of this history is of interest, which is the use of the “dual contracts.” Those allowed more than one rail operator to use the same tracks and is analogous to the open network approach in today’s broadband world – whether the fiber backbone of broadband networks should be open to all users.
This opportunistic strategy perhaps made it easier and quicker for New York City to bring its great transit system to life. Of course, eventually, this same lack of coherence created future problems and inefficiencies. And by the time the great expansion of transit lines was finished, the government ended up owning and operating the whole system and sporadically filling some of the remaining unserved areas.
Was the trade-off of a fast growth opportunistic strategy against longer term problems worth it? Given the success and the role that the subways have played in New York City’s development, the answer is likely yes.
I’ve combined excerpts from a couple different sources (especially the now ubiquitous Wikipedia) to highlight some aspects of that system’s history. …
History of the New York City Subway
The beginnings of the Subway came from various excursion railroads to Coney Island and elevated railroads in Manhattan and Brooklyn. At that time, New York County (Manhattan Island and part of the Bronx), Kings County (including the Cities of Brooklyn and Williamsburg) and Queens County were separate political entities.
In New York, competing steam-powered elevated railroads were built over major avenues. The first elevated line was constructed in 1867-70 by Charles Harvey and his West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway company along Greenwich Street and Ninth Avenue (although cable cars were the initial mode of transportation on that railway). Later more lines were built on Second, Third and Sixth Avenues. None of these structures remain today, but these lines later shared trackage with subway trains as part of the IRT system.
In Kings County [Brooklyn], elevated railroads were also built by several companies. These also later shared trackage with subway trains, and even operated into the subway, as part of the BRT and BMT. These lines were linked to Manhattan by various ferries and later the tracks along the Brooklyn Bridge (which originally had their own line, and were later integrated into the BRT/BMT). Also in Kings County, six steam excursion railroads were built to various beaches in the southern part of the county; all but one eventually fell under BMT control.
In 1898, New York, Kings and Richmond Counties, and parts of Queens and Westchester Counties and their constituent cities, towns, villages and hamlets were consolidated into the City of Greater New York. During this era the expanded City of New York resolved that it wanted the core of future rapid transit to be underground subways, but realized that no private company was willing to put up the enormous capital required to build beneath the streets.
The City decided to issue rapid transit bonds outside of its regular bonded debt limit and build the subways itself, and contracted with the IRT (which by that time ran the elevated lines in Manhattan) to equip and operate the subways, sharing the profits with the City and guaranteeing a fixed five-cent fare.
The Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) subway opened in 1904. The city contracted construction of the line to the IRT Company, ownership was always held by the city. The IRT built, equipped, and operated the line under a lease from the city. The IRT also leased the Manhattan Railway elevated lines in Manhattan and the Bronx for 999 years!
In Brooklyn, the various elevated railroads and many of the surface steam railroads, as well as most of the trolley lines, were consolidated under the BRT. Some improvements were made to these lines at company expense during this era. Then the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT, formerly the Brooklyn Rapid Transit, BRT) was the rapid transit company which built, bought, or assumed control of the Brooklyn elevated lines.
The BRT, which just barely entered Manhattan via the Brooklyn Bridge, wanted the opportunity to compete with the IRT, and the IRT wanted to extend its Brooklyn line to compete with the BRT. This led to the City’s agreeing to contract for future subways with both the BRT and IRT. The expansion of rapid transit was greatly facilitated by the signing of the Dual Contracts in 1913. Finished mostly by 1920, some of the new lines had trains operated by both companies.
The majority of the present-day subway system was either built or improved under [four sequential] contracts to the IRT and BRT
The City, bolstered by political claims that the private companies were reaping profits at taxpayer expense, determined that it would build, equip and operate a new system itself, with private investment and without sharing the profits with private entities. This led to the building of the Independent City-Owned Subway (ICOS), sometimes called the Independent Subway System — that was not connected to the IRT or BMT lines. This system consisted of entirely subway construction with only one elevated portion.
As the first line neared completion, New York City offered it for private operation as a formality, knowing that no operator would meet its terms. Thus the city declared that it would operate it itself, formalizing a foregone conclusion. The first line opened without a formal ceremony..
Only two new lines were opened [later], the IRT Dyre Avenue Line (1941) and the IND Rockaway Line (1956). Both of these lines were rehabilitations of existing railroad rights-of-way rather than new construction.
In June 1940, the transportation assets of the former BMT and IRT systems were taken over by the City of New York for operation by the City’s Board of Transportation, which already operated the IND system. After city takeover of the bankrupt BMT and IRT companies, many of the elevated lines were closed, and a slow “unification” took place, marked notably by establishment of several free transfer points between divisions in 1948 and a few points of through running between IND and BMT lines beginning in 1954.
A combination of factors had this takeover coincide with the end of the major rapid transit building eras in New York City. The City immediately began to eliminate what it considered redundancy in the system, closing several elevated lines.
[But] Because the early subway systems competed with each other, they tended to cover the same areas of the city, leading to much overlapping service. The amount of service has actually decreased since the 1940s as many elevated railways were torn down, and finding funding for underground replacements has proven difficult.
Despite the unification, a distinction between the three systems survives in the service labels: IRT lines (now referred to as A Division) have numbers and BMT/IND (now collectively B Division) lines use letters. There is also a more physical but less obvious difference: Division A cars are narrower than those of Division B by 18 inches (~45cm) and shorter by 9 to 24 feet (~2.7 to 7.3m). An BMT/IND style train cannot fit into an IRT tunnel (the numbered lines and the 42nd Street Shuttle). An IRT train CAN fit into a BMT/IND tunnel but since it is narrower the distance from car to platform is unsafe. Cars from the IRT division are moved using BMT/IND tracks to Coney Island Overhaul Shops for major maintenance on a regular basis. Division B equipment could operate on much of Division A if station platforms were trimmed and trackside furniture moved. Being able to do so would increase the capacity of Division A. However, there is virtually no chance of this happening because the portions of Division A that could not accommodate Division B equipment without major physical reconstruction are situated in such a way that it would be impossible to put together coherent through services.
© 2011 Norman Jacknis