Did you ever wonder how the mass transit situation in New York got so fouled up? A lot of the answer is from an unusual man named Robert Moses.
An in-depth look at this man can be found in a book called “The Power Broker” by Robert A. Caro. Robert Moses (sometimes referred to as “RM”) was born in 1888. His parents were well-to-do merchants. Although he was born in New Haven, his family was from New York City and moved back when he was a youngster. Moses graduated from Yale in 1909. An example of his arrogance involved the swimming team. A consistent benefactor of this team was Ogden Mills Reid. As a matter of fact, he paid almost all of the expenses of this team as Yale was then concentrating its funding on such projects as the Yale Bowl. Moses had organized a “minor sports association” in which each minor sport at Yale would share equally in donations. Moses approached Reid and got a contribution but didn’t tell him it was for all minor sports and not just swimming. When challenged by the team captain for deliberately misleading Reid, Moses offered his resignation the first of many times in his life. This time it was accepted. Other times it was refused by many mayors and governors. The next time his resignation was accepted was by Nelson Rockefeller almost sixty years later!
It can be argued that Robert Moses shaped New York in its present form. He built every major highway except the East River Drive, all seven bridges completed since 1931, Shea Stadium, Lincoln Center and the now-empty New York Coliseum. In addition, he cleared the obstacles to acquiring the United Nations land and built huge numbers of public and private housing units (Coop City for example). But he didn’t do much for mass transit.
Between 1924 and 1968 he held immense power. The base for this power was a public corporation named the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. In addition, he held several other titles such as New York Power Authority Chairman; New York State Parks Commission Chairman; New York City Construction Coordinator; New York City Planning Commission Chairman.
He controlled his empire from an unobtrusive building on Randall’s Island below the Triborough toll plaza. As a matter of fact, his authority administered all of Randall’s Island. The TBTA had its own flag; fleet of cars, trucks and boats; and private army of “Bridge and Tunnel Officers”. It had its own source of revenue in the coins dropped into toll booths.
Moses had a secret veto on all public works projects in New York City and had more power than the mayor. He kept secret files which he used to discredit his opponents.
He was the long-time New York City Parks Commissioner. When he took the job there were 119 playgrounds in the city. When he left there were 777. Outside of the city, he built power dams at Massena and Niagara Falls as well as many parks and parkways on Long Island. Since he built both Jones Beach and all roads leading to it, that explains why there is no mass transit to it.
In the 1930’s the Regional Plan Association proposed improved mass transit. Robert Moses didn’t listen to them; instead he built 100 miles of new parkways which filled up as soon as they were opened. RM was responsible for the West Side Improvements and wanted “the great highway that went uptown along the water”. He completed a long-stalled 5-mile elevated expressway from the southern tip of Manhattan to 72nd Street. He also built 6 1/2 miles north to the tip of the island. He then built a park on the river and the Henry Hudson Bridge.
The West Side project involved moving the New York Central Railroad. Details of this were set up in a 1927 agreement between the railroad and the city. The 30th Street and 72nd Street yards were built to replace track further downtown. Before 1929, the city had spent $25 million and the railroad $84 million. The Depression had halted all work but RM found money for the railroad by tapping the state grade crossing elimination fund.
The Bronx-Whitestone Bridge which was built in 1936 made no provision for mass transit. Earlier bridges in New York (not built by Moses) had subway lines as well as roads. Some of these are the Brooklyn, Queensboro, Manhattan and Williamsburg. Many of the parkways he built were designed with bridges too low to accommodate buses. This was very intentional as Moses wanted to make them for cars-only and to exclude trucks.
Between 1930 and 1950, rail commuters declined while highway commuters into New York increased. Every trainload of commuters shifting to automobiles required parking space about equal to the effective parking capacity of one side of Fifth Avenue from Washington Square to Sixty-eighth Street (3 miles).
The Van Wyck Expressway was built where 13 tracks of the Long Island Railroad cross Atlantic Avenue in Jamaica. While construction was underway, 1100 daily train movements (one of the busiest in the world) were maintained. One can’t help but wonder why a rail line from this point couldn’t have easily followed the parkway to Kennedy Airport. Cost to construct when the road was being built would have been reasonable – today it would be prohibitive.
You might have remembered the name Hortense Gabel from the Mayor Koch/Bess “Miss America” Myerson scandal in the late 1980’s. Hortense was by then a judge who had a flaky daughter that Bess hired in order to get a favorable divorce ruling. But years before, Hortense had been one of the most vocal opponents of Moses. She had organized groups in the 1950’s that began to pressure to limit the vast powers of Robert Moses.
There was an attempt in 1955 to use Triborough and Port Authority funds to modernize the Long Island Railroad, build a subway loop to New Jersey, build a new Queens subway and build the famous but still-born 2nd Avenue Subway. At central locations in Queens and Nassau Counties, multilevel parking garages could have been built atop commuter rail stops. There could have been a new East Side Long Island RR terminal and even a new rapid transit line along the median strip of the Long Island Expressway. The New Jersey tunnel loop would have not only given access to Manhattan where commuters really wanted to go from the Battery to Fifty-ninth Street. It would have prevented the current mess on New Jersey highways, trans-Hudson vehicular tunnels, the West Side Highway and Manhattan streets. The Nostrand Avenue Subway in Brooklyn could have been extended and the even-today bottleneck in train service between Brooklyn and Manhattan at DeKalb Avenue eliminated.
RM’s proposed highways were designed to help automobile-owning families. In 1945 two out of three residents of the city did not own automobiles. Subway fare increases hurt these people. While highways were being extended into areas of the city where they might or might not be needed, subways were not being extended to where they were vitally needed. His monopolization of public funds for highways made subway construction impossible. Even for car-owning families, no subway meant the hardship of having to drive into Manhattan – and park – and pay bridge tolls. It is also said that Moses’ transportation policies helped the poor stay trapped in their slums (“ghettoization”).
In the 1950’s, millions were spent on highways in New York City but only a fraction of that on mass transit. In 1974, New Yorkers were still riding on tracks laid between 1904 and 1933 – before Moses had come to power. Not another mile was built under Moses. Since shortly after World War I, the city had been promising to build a Second Avenue Subway to serve the East Side. Plans have sat in city engineer’s desks since 1929. The city repeated its promise when the Second Avenue El was torn down and again in 1955 when the Third Avenue El went. A Second Avenue Subway coupled to a dedicated East River tunnel could have been extended to Queens to provide subway lines to residents who were miles from the nearest station. The result was, and is, an overcrowded Lexington Avenue IRT line. Subway cars were not replaced (at one point, much of the fleet was a half century old) and a policy of “deferred maintenance” began to take its toll. Fortunately, the subway system had been well engineered and previously well maintained – but eventually it deteriorated.
The last great project Robert Moses was involved in was the 1964 World’s Fair. It was a financial disaster and, again, no gains for mass transit. In the meantime, the Long Island Expressway was built without provision for rapid transit. As each section opened, it was jammed to capacity (“The world’s largest parking lot”). For an extra 4 percent of the cost, it would have been possible to acquire the land to build a rail line.
New York City Mayor Lindsey and many others tried to throttle Moses, but only Nelson Rockefeller was successful. “Rocky” was one of the most dynamic and forceful governors New York ever had. Moses had always used financial protection of creditors as a defense against any takeover of “his” Authority. But his principal bondholder trustee was the Chase Manhattan Bank. Chase Manhattan was the only major bank still controlled by one family – the Governor’s! Rockefeller brought all the region’s transportation elements together under William Ronan and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
When “RM” came to power, New York City’s mass transit system was the best in the world. When he left, it was the worst.
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