The Right PATH

The PATH tubes were an engineering marvel when they were built more than 100 years ago. The driving force behind their construction was an ambitious lawyer named William Gibbs McAdoo, president of the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad Company, who saw possibilities for profit in bypassing the lumbering ferries that connected Jersey City and Hoboken to Manhattan. 

More than a century later, those tubes still serve tens of thousands of riders every day. Mr. McAdoo’s project remains a vital link in the region’s transportation network, although his company, the H&M, went bankrupt more than 50 years ago, leading the Port Authority to take over the system. But like nearly all mass transit lines, the PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson) system loses money. Lots of money.

The Citizens Budget Commission recently concluded that the PATH system is a drain on the Port Authority’s finances. The agency currently has to cover a $400 million annual deficit to operate the system, and that figure is expected to increase to nearly a half a billion dollars within five years – even with a fare increase.

The C.B.C. is not alone in calling attention to the PATH’s troubled finances. New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management issued a valuable report earlier this month which noted that the Port Authority will have to allocate $4.6 billion to support PATH operations and improvements from 2002 to 2020, a figure that does not include the $1 billion spent on a new PATH station at the World Trade Center. The report noted that the Port Authority can no longer “adequately fund its own facilities and services while simultaneously allocating hundreds of millions for non-revenue-generating state projects.”

What to do? The C.B.C. recommends that New Jersey Transit take over the PATH system. This proposal demonstrates a confidence in a rail operation that has hardly covered itself in glory recently. It botched service to Met Life Stadium on Super Bowl Sunday in February, and it suffered catastrophic equipment losses during Superstorm Sandy, when trains were moved to wait it out in low-lying locations.

NJ Transit may not be the best option. But the problem won’t go away. Governors Cuomo and Christie have to find other resources to maintain this critical link in the region’s network. That may mean higher fares, even beyond the increase planned for October, and taxpayer subsidies. The status-quo is unsustainable.