August 19, 2011 9:16AM

Why Is the Tappan Zee Bridge in the Wrong Place?

David Kestenbaum of NPR Planet Money reports this morning:

You would never look at a map of the Hudson River, point to the spot where the Tappan Zee Bridge is, and say, “Put the bridge here!”

The Tappan Zee crosses one of the widest points on the Hudson — the bridge is more than three miles long. And if you go just a few miles south, the river gets much narrower. As you might expect, it would have been cheaper and easier to build the bridge across the narrower spot on the river.

Was there in fact a good engineering reason to put the bridge there, one that escaped the notice of the NPR reporter? Was there a good economic reason, perhaps avoiding expensive property confiscations?

Well, it won’t surprise readers of Cato‐​at‐​Liberty to discover that the bridge is in the wrong place because it made money for the State of New York:

If the bridge had been built just a bit south of its current location — that is, if it had been built across a narrower stretch of the river — it would have been in the territory that belonged to the Port Authority.

As a result, the Port Authority — not the State of New York — would have gotten the revenue from tolls on the bridge. And [Gov. Thomas E.] Dewey needed that toll revenue to fund the rest of the Thruway.

Now the bridge needs repairs, which will cost more because the bridge is three miles long, instead of one mile long as it could have been. In Libertarianism: A Primer (page 199), I cited the work of the Italian fiscal theorist Amilcare Puviani, who asked, If a government were trying to squeeze as much money as possible out of its population, what would it do? He came up with 11 tactics, from inflation and borrowing to extraordinary budget complexity. I wonder if “placing a bridge in an inefficient place so that we get the tolls instead of another government” is covered by one of his strategies.