NPR’s Planet Money has an interesting story about why the Tappan Zee Bridge is in the wrong place, on a much wider part of the Hudson River than if it had been placed a few miles farther south. Essentially, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey had a monopoly on all bridges within a 25 mile radius of the Statue of Liberty. If then-New York governor Thomas Dewey had put the bridge farther south, he couldn’t have used the money from toll revenues on the bridge to fund the New York State Thruway. Naturally, libertarians have a story about how this illustrates the inferiority of public infrastructure. Matthew Yglesias ably rebuts this claim, but I think his second point about the problems with federalism in a metro spread between several states doesn’t go far enough.
Yglesias suggests that the federalism story and the Port Authority/NYS Thruway competition stories are separate, but as anyone who has read The Power Broker can tell you, they are intimately related. While Dewey was putting the Tappan Zee in the wrong place, Robert Moses was at the height of his corrupt power at the Triborough Bridge Authority, building bridges and highways either out of spite or an obsession with straight lines, but always with an eye toward maximizing the power vested in the authority’s he ran vis a vis the other ones.
Public authorities exist because metro areas cross city and state lines, so projects have to as well. In metro areas without a strong metropolitan planning organization (almost all of them), these projects get done piecemeal, whenever state governments can agree, and create centers of power and money for state politicians to fight over and hoard. Ultimately, authorities that are supposed to be run for the public good operate in ways that don’t make sense in either a private or public market: case in point are the vicious fare increases the Port Authority enacted on its PATH commuter system to go along with the more loudly bemoaned, but far more logical toll increases of all the other Hudson River crossings. The Port Authority ends up worrying about its own budgeted bottom line, instead fulfilling its duties as an element of the state.