Where is the Second Avenue Subway going?

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Photo copyright Metropolitan Transportation Authority. ((Click here to enlarge)
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At the end of 2016, if nothing else goes awry, the first phase of the Second Avenue subway will open.

For the more than 200,000 daily riders expected to ride the Q train east to Second Avenue and north up to 96th Street, the Second Avenue Subway will be a considerable boon.

For the M.T.A., which struggles to maintain its aging system as is, the opening will represent an accomplishment, but a fractional one.

The 30-plus blocks of new subway, the three new stations and the $4.45 billion outlay comprise only the first of a four-phase subway plan that has been nearly a century in the making.

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When or even whether funding for the second phase, which tentatively calls for extending the subway up to the 125th Street Metro-North station at Park Avenue, will materialize is “uncertain,” according to Gene Russianoff, the staff attorney at NYPIRG’s Straphangers Campaign.

“The question is where is the money gonna come from,” said Peter Derrick, a transit historian.

In late 2011, Michael Horodniceanu, the M.T.A.'s head of capital construction, said that "sections two, three and four will be for our children or grandchildren."

But when I talked with M.T.A. spokesman Adam Lisberg, he said that the M.T.A. was in fact planning to "update the environmental impact statement in order to do Phase II, because it was done years ago and we want to make sure that all of the conditions still apply."

How long will that take?

“I don’t know.”

SUBWAY BUILDING IN NEW YORK CITY IN THE 21ST CENTURY is an astronomically expensive endeavor, one made all the more difficult by high labor and regulatory costs, the federal government’s uneven commitment to mass transit investment and Albany's own tendency to deprioritize transit funding.

But Russianoff, who believes that the expansion of mass transit in New York City in times of fiscal duress must necessarily involve lower-cost options like bus rapid transit, argues that there is still a strong case to be made for a Second Avenue Subway Phase II, III, and IV.

“I’ve been persuaded that completing the whole line would provide a lot of relief for people on the crowded 4, 5 and 6 trains," he said. "Right now, it’s just like a three-stop line that goes to the N and the R."

New York City’s East Side has only one north-south subway line, the most heavily used in the United States. It carries in excess of 1.3 million riders a day, more than the subway ridership of San Francisco, Chicago and Boston combined.

That makes for an unpleasant rush-hour riding experience, one prone to delays, dangerously crowded platforms and uncomfortably close contact with strangers.

"The Upper East Side is much more extensive than the west side, but the west side has two subway lines," said Richard Barone, the director of transportation programs at the Regional Plan Association.

This is a problem that will only worsen if the city’s population growth projections are borne out, and it’s a problem that's been many decades in the making.

The vision for a subway line running the length of Manhattan’s East Side has been around for 94 years.

It was first mentioned in New York State Public Service Commission chief engineer Daniel Turner’s 1919 Proposed Comprehensive Rapid Transit System, according to Roger Roess and Gene Sansone’s The Wheels that Drove New York: A History of the New York City Transit System.

“In the entire history of New York City transit, no line shares the long and tortured mythology of the Second Avenue Subway,” they write. “So tangled is its history, that when ground was broken on April 12, 2007 for its latest incarnation, no one was sure whether this was the third or fourth ground-breaking for the subway.”

The Great Depression foiled the first Second Avenue subway plans. World War II derailed the second. In the 1950s, voters approved a half-billion-dollar bond issue for the Second Avenue Subway, but then politicians, as is their wont, diverted the money elsewhere.

In 1972, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Mayor John Lindsay, Congressman Ed Koch and M.T.A. chairman William Ronan actually broke ground on the Second Avenue Subway and even succeeded in tunneling through several blocks of bedrock. But then the 1975 financial crisis put an end to that.

In 2007, a 94-year old Ronan came up from Florida for the latest groundbreaking.

“Well I sure hope they’ll do it this time because time is moving on,” he said. “And of course it’s going to cost a fortune, more than back when we were going to do it. It was expensive enough then.”

Ronan has since become a centenarian.

Soon, the M.T.A. will roll out its next five-year capital plan. It's expected to total some $29 billion.

At a recent breakfast, I asked Tom Prendergast, the authority's new chairman, whether funding for the Second Avenue Subway Phase II would be in that capital plan.

"Yes, I think one of the things that we need to be able to do is for the system expansion projects, either complete them or continue on the road to completion," he said. "If you take a look at the fact that the original bond issue for the Second Avenue Subway was 1936, you know, it would be nice to be able to get that project done within 100 years of when it was first thought of."

"It has to happen, because we have to keep momentum," said Barone. "There’s so many things it does for the city. It’s been on the boards for a while for a reason."

Advocates argue, optimistically, that the next phase ought to begin as soon as the first one is completed so as to avoid having to re-alienate the neighborhoods the subway will be serving.

"If everyone goes home, you have to destruct the area all over again," said Barone. "It takes years to start all over again."

There are other reasons to believe that starting up again, once the construction has stopped, is a good idea. 

"What is more of a factor is keeping the project staff in place" who have built up the necessary expertise to build a subway through a very dense part of Manhattan, according to Lisberg.

"And there’s also an important message here, which is that it is essential for the M.T.A. , which is still trying to restore public credibility lost in the bad years, that when we say we’re going to build the Second Avenue Subway, we keep building it," he continued. "There are people in New York City who think the Second Avenue Subway is some sort of lost dream."

above photo via The New York Times.

But at this point there remain several significant unknowns.

One is that the the M.T.A. is apparently still debating which portion of the full, 8.5 mile Second Avenue Subway, the one stretching from 125th Street to Hanover Square, should comprise Phase II.

"Phase II, meaning the north wing of it, we have never officially said that is the next one we will build," said Lisberg. "You could in theory do Phase III next."

(Phase III is the portion that extends from 72nd to Houston streets.)

"Obviously going north seems to make the most engineering sense, in part because sections of the subway tunnel have already been done thanks to the aborted efforts of the 70s," he added.

Another, more pressing question has to do with funding, and the zero-sum game between upkeep and expansion that's created by limited resources.

"At some point we may get into this difficult choice between expansion and fixing what we have or adding capacity with the signal system," said Russianoff. "It hasn’t come to that, but that’s going to be a concern as they move into Phase II. Does it come at a cost to fixing the existing system? And it’s something we worry about."

"I want to be optimistic and say there's a 50-50 chance it will begin," said Benjamin Kabak, the publisher of Second Avenue Sagas. "But at this point I don’t see anything indicating that."

This article is brought to you by AT&T, the sponsor of this Capital New York series on building New York City. The articles are reported and written at the sole discretion of Capital. AT&T did not have, or ask for, any say in the creation of this content.