In Memoriam: Ted Kheel, Transit Advocate and Visionary

The New York Times called Ted Kheel, who died Friday at the age of 96, New York City’s pre-eminent labor peacemaker from the 1950s through the 1980s. And he was. Ted was also a steadfast advocate for civil rights, a fierce champion of mass transit, a stalwart defender of labor, an urbanist, a philanthropist, and a visionary. And, for the better part of a century, a vital element of progressive struggle in New York and beyond.

Kheel was an ally of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders.

Ted became famous in the 1950s and 1960s as the mediator who settled newspaper strikes, railroad strikes and other high-stakes disputes. He was a fixture in The Times — his square jaw and determined face signifying probity and civic virtue. But much of his finest work was done out of the spotlight. It was Ted’s heretical but constant agitation to allocate surplus toll revenues from Robert Moses’s Triborough Bridge & Tunnel Authority to the financially ailing public transit agencies, that in 1968 led NY Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to combine the TBTA with the Transit Authority and the commuter railroads into the MTA — and destroy Moses’s power to fund highways and starve transit.

Ted’s transit advocacy rested on what he called “the fundamental principle that car travel and mass transit are interrelated, like two sides of an equation. There should be a balance,” he wrote, “but instead, our system is enormously, unconscionably out of balance,” causing road gridlock on the one hand and inadequate transit service on the other. Ted fought for five decades to correct that imbalance, with stories in New York magazine like “How To Stop Cars from Devouring the City” [PDF]; with a self-financed lawsuit [PDF] to overturn bond covenants through which the Port Authority enjoined itself from expanding mass transit, that Ted pursued all the way to the Supreme Court (losing on a tie vote); and, in his final years, with an even more audacious venture that would draw me into his orbit and point the way to a new transit revolution with the potential to surpass that of 1968.

In early 2007, already well into his nineties, Ted asked transportation engineer George Haikalis to examine whether congestion pricing could generate enough revenue to finance free mass transit throughout the five boroughs. Yes, free, not just to help drive a stake through traffic gridlock but to establish urban transport as an essential public service, on a par with public education and safety, while giving working people the equivalent of a pay raise. George hired me onto his team, and by fall I had fashioned a skeletal spreadsheet model that appeared to answer Ted’s question affirmatively: a $16 congestion toll, charged 24/7, would allow 100 percent free buses and subways [PDF].

On a brilliant October Sunday, I went to Ted’s Fifth Avenue office and showed him my work. Ted loved the model, which he dubbed the “Balanced Transportation Analyzer.” What really stays with me from that day, though, was Ted’s ringside recollections of events that had rocked New York City and State and even the nation. As Central Park’s blazing colors softened into shadow, Ted and I relived fifty years of history: the fateful 1966 transit strike, Lyndon Johnson’s dangling of Supreme Court seats in front of prospective nominees, and implacable personages from TWU chief Mike Quill to Rockefeller and JFK.

Komanoff and Kheel looking forward to free transit.

That day three years ago marked a personal turning point. With Ted’s active guidance and the generous support of his Nurture Nature Foundation, I threw myself into fleshing out the BTA and becoming an advocate for Ted’s vision of free transit. The work has been by turns frustrating and exhilarating. Frustrating because we lacked the political muscle to get our more-nuanced congestion pricing approaches considered alongside the plans advanced by Mayor Bloomberg in 2007-08 or the Ravitch Commission in 2008-09. But exhilarating because the BTA has blossomed to where it can handle time-of-day-varied toll and fare plans and estimate the resulting revenues and travel time savings. (The current BTA spreadsheet can be downloaded here; requires Excel 2007 or later.)

The BTA also reveals the extent to which the proverbial “one additional car trip” to the CBD slows down other vehicles on the road: by several hours (the aggregate of the seconds of road delay imposed on hundreds or thousands of cars and trucks), worth $100 of lost time, plus or minus, depending on time of day and week. This novel element, a kind of “foundation stone” of congestion pricing, attracted the interest of financial blogger Felix Salmon and Wired magazine. Felix’s article in the June Wired conveys Ted’s prescient grasp of the extent to which the social costs of car use far outweigh fiscal support for transit:

Now 95 years old, Kheel has been trying to improve New York’s traffic for more than half a century. He is obsessed with the economic damage that cars do to cities — damage that’s much greater than most people realize… in a New York magazine cover story arguing against another fare increase [he wrote]: “Any balanced analysis will surely prove that the taxpayer actually pays, for every person who chooses to drive to and from work in his own car, an indirect subsidy at least 10 times as great as the indirect subsidy now paid the mass-transit rider.”

When the article was published, in June, I went to Ted’s apartment and read it aloud. We beamed, seeing our handiwork manifested in print. Ted had cast his bread upon the waters and seen it returned as mathematical validation. I had found, in this protean man, both a patron and a kindred spirit.

Ted’s Nurture Nature Foundation has subsequently retained renowned environmental campaigner Alex Matthiessen to spearhead education and outreach to fulfill Ted’s vision of tolling driving to finance transit. With deep deficits in Albany and at the MTA placing free transit off limits for the time being, Alex is reconfiguring free transit as Sustainable Transit and helping make Ted’s and my plan even more synergistic and compelling. The mutually reinforcing elements — time-varied tolls to drive to the CBD; medallion taxi charges so that outlying boroughs and counties don’t subsidize Manhattan; off-peak transit discounts; targeted improvements in transit service today while supporting the MTA capital plan for tomorrow — promise 20 percent improvements in CBD travel speeds along with a time-out from the endless spiral of fare hikes. (Several versions of the plan are on display in the “Results” tab of the BTA; see earlier link.)

“I’ve been to the mountaintop,” Martin Luther King declared in his sermon in Memphis on April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated. “And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” Ted Kheel, a political ally and financial supporter of Dr. King’s, was privileged to live a long and full life. He may not have made it to the promised land of free transit. But Ted did as much as anyone to bring New York to the mountaintop of a transportation system that subordinates the damages caused by the auto to the needs of public transit and the multitudes who benefit from it.

Thank you, Ted, for letting me walk with you in the last part of your journey.