Declining bridge and tunnel traffic is one of the factors cited by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as justification for its proposed toll and fare increase, which has met with a predictable reaction from Governors Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie. But a closer look at the PA’s original traffic projections suggest they may have been inflated to start with.
Consider the following chart.
As shown above, when the economy peaked in 2007, vehicular traffic on the Port Authority’s bridges and tunnels barely exceeded the level in 2000, a year prior to the devastation of 9/11. Indeed, the net increase in traffic during this period occurred entirely on the authority’s Staten Island crossings. The number of vehicles using the the George Washington Bridge, the Lincoln Tunnel and the Holland Tunnel was actually lower in 2007 than 2000, even though New York City’s economy in 2007 employed an average of 50,000 more private-sector workers than it had in 2000.
While few were clairvoyant enough to predict an economic downturn on the scale the nation experienced between December 2007 and June 2009, by the end of 2007 there was plenty of reason to be especially cautious about the regional economic outlook. Such caution was reflected, for example, in New York City’s budget forecasts at the time. Given the traffic trend of the previous seven years, it’s hard to see what made the PA believe in January 2008 that bridge and tunnel crossings would rise by 5 million vehicles (4 percent) over the next four years, much less 13 million (10 percent) by 2016 — recession or no recession.
Nonetheless, the PA’s news releases and financial documents imply that toll revenues would have come in right on target if it hadn’t been for that darn “historic economic recession.” Hmm. Didn’t something else happen in 2008 that might have deterred some PA crossings?
As today’s New York Post reports, mounting cost of redeveloping the World Trade Center has probably been the biggest single factor behind the PA’s financial problems. And much of that overrun can be traced to a massive “transportation hub” serving a relative handful of New Jersey PATH commuters who are already heavily subsidized by bridge and tunnel users.
In view of the actual vs. projected traffic numbers, a cynic might also suggest that a portion of the shortfall was baked into the PA’s pie from the beginning. Not that the PA has ever given anyone reason to be cynical, of course.