Mayor Bloomberg doesn’t just want control of schools, he wants the private buses, too. But careful how you use that term “private.” Steven Malanga explains: The current mess results from a half-century of bad policy decisions. Before World War II, private companies ran the city’s entire bus system. Beginning in 1947, however, the city began to assume control of the private lines, using bus-company requests to hike the then-nickel fare as justification for “transit unification,” under centralized government control. At the same time, the city also contracted with several private bus companies to run routes under the new system. Eventually, the private lines won from the city heavy operating subsidies and automatic contract renewal, protecting them from competition. No genuine private marketplace operates like this, so it’s no surprise that the “private” bus lines’ performance leaves much to be desired: the city subsidizes service to the tune of $145 million annually, and service stinks. The company owners, though, became big political givers to city pols, enabling them to maintain their cushy monopolies until now. Bad as this arrangement is, Bloomberg’s proposed MTA takeover would not be any better. The MTA’s own system suffers from massive inefficiencies and high expenses. A study by Manhattan Institute senior fellow E. J. McMahon and Baruch College professor E. S. Savas, for example, found that the MTA spent $90.74 per vehicle operating hour in 2000Ã¢â?¬â??fifth-highest among the nation’s 30 largest transit systems. Making matters worse, the MTA wants fatter subsidies before it takes over any routes. To lower costs, genuine privatization is necessaryÃ¢â?¬â??and that means setting up real competitive bidding for transportation contracts. Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, and San Diego have all realized sizable savings by turning to competitive bidding in this area. In Denver, bid-out routes cost 46 percent less to run than those the city still runs directly; in Los Angeles, which now contracts out more than half its bus service, the savings amount to roughly 40 percent.
Ted Balaker is an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and founding partner of Korchula Productions, a film and new media production company devoted to making important ideas entertaining.