Five years ago, when a rain shower shut down the city's subway system, the New York Sun issued a memorable editorial under the headline "Sell The Subways."
That editorial recounted the subway's history of grinding to a halt, not only in a 100-year hurricane, or a day ahead of one, but nearly every time there is a heavy drizzle.
"New Yorkers have discovered that the trains can't be relied on when it rains," the Sun wrote on October 26, 2004, in "Beach's Bright Idea." In an editorial called "Sales Tax and the Subway," on March 29, 2005, the Sun opposed a tax increase for new transit projects, writing, "It strikes us that before New York's already hard-pressed taxpayers are asked to pony up for these projects, the MTA's leaders should focus on getting the existing trains to run reliably, rain or shine."
On July 29 that year, the Sun criticized the MTA's plan to use surplus funds for a platform over West side railyards, suggesting "better ways to spend the riders' money" included making it "possible for the subway to run in the rain." In a September 21, 2005 editorial calling on voters to reject the $2.9 billion Rebuild and Renew New York Transportation Bond Act of 2005, the Sun wrote, "The subways still can't run in the rain." In a December 30, 2005, editorial headlined "Contract Contrast," the Sun wrote, "a government monopoly has left us with a transit system that floods in a heavy rain."
It's not only the editorials that have called attention to the problem. "More Rain Could Create Transit Havoc," a September 15, 2004 Sun headline warned. "Drenching Rains Force Subway Lines to Close," was the headline on September 29, 2004. "Torrential Rain Floods the Subway, Causing Power Outages and Delays," was the headline on October 13, 2005. "Downpour Causes Power Outages, Suspension of Some Train Service," was the headline on July 6, 2006.
The editorial concluded by turning to the conclusion expressed in the first editorial in the Sun, back on April 16, 2002, that it is time to think about returning the city's subways, many of which were built by private enterprise, to private ownership and operation. It said, "With private ownership, different operators could compete over whose system was the most durable to rain. With a free market in pricing, the operators who invest in better maintenance and more modern pumps to counter flooding might be able to recoup their investments by charging higher fares when the competing lines, stingier on their investments, were shut down with tracks under water."
It was true in 2007 and it is just as true today, five years later. This is not to underestimate the power of Hurricane Sandy or belittle the threat it poses. But the fact remains that in much of New York City here at midday on Monday, October 29, it's just a windy day. "You can look outside and say it's not bad, and that's correct," Mayor Bloomberg himself conceded at a news conference at 11:43 this morning, after the subways had already been closed for more than 12 hours. The decision by the government to close the subway system Sunday evening, a full day before the hurricane is expected to arrive, means that plenty of employees who ordinarily rely on the subway to get to work — even hospital nurses and employees of electric utilities who are needed in the storm, and even city workers who were told to report to work on Monday — have to find other means of transportation. The loss in productivity is enormous.
The same argument goes for the Battery Tunnel and the Holland Tunnel, ordered closed by Governor Cuomo effective 2 p.m. Monday. If the tunnels were privately owned, their owners would be able to decide for themselves whether to open or close, and the owners would have been able to make their own judgments whether to build the tunnels to the level necessary to withstand such a storm. Meanwhile, as the government was shutting down subways and tunnels, plenty of private businesses, ranging from bars to bodegas to pizza parlors and movie theaters, were open. It's a contrast that sends a message about the incentives and choices and differences between free enterprise and government control.