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Fare Enough

Is it finally time for free subways? Inside Ted Kheel’s 42-year-old plan to make it happen.

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Photo Illustration by Dienststelle 75  

The subway 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 eventually follow.

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Kheel fought the covenant to the Supreme Court and lost, and although it was later repealed, it applied to the 30-year bonds the Authority held.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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