I've been thinking a lot about the NYC subway system. It was built in the latter part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century. It's a lesson in the power of private enterprise to do public good.
There were elevated transit lines in NYC dating back to the 1870s, but the first underground line opened in 1904. At that time, the NYC subway system was operated by two privately held companies, the BRT (Brooklyn Rapid Transit) which became the BMT (Brooklyn Manhattan Transit) and the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit). These privately held companies raised capital to build the subway lines and operated with the city's blessing. Starting in 1913, the city starting building the tunnels and leased them to these privately held companies.
Then in 1932, the city started to compete with these two privately held companies, and in 1940, they were bought and consolidated into the MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority).
I ride the subways every day and will head to the L train shortly to get to work. Every time I ride on this system, I am amazed at how it got built given the cost and complexity involved.
The fact that it started out as a private enterprise is not surprising. There is something incredibly powerful about entrepreneurs backed by speculative capital. The entrepreneurs laid the first tunnels, operated the first lines, and showed that it was a profitable enterprise.
At some point the city stepped in and turned it into a public utility. Say what you want about government's ability (or inability) to operate effectively, I will tell you that the NYC subway system works pretty damn well.
So all the debates, including the one I waded into yesterday about mobile broadband infrastructure, about private enterprise versus public spending are like most things – fringe debates. There is a third way which is public private partnerships and I think that is the best way.