The subway expansion that never came to be


The city never received the subway upgrades in wanted in the late 1960s. (Click to enlarge.)

Every rail fan has their own pet project for a better New York City subway system, and everyone likes to dream a day in which that system is a reality. Recently, the topic du jour has focused around ways to connect the outer boroughs while avoiding Manhattan and ways to extend current lines past their outer terminals into under-served neighborhoods.

In recent months, foremost among those dreamers has been the MTA. Before the economy had completely collapsed underneath us, Elliot “Lee” Sander, CEO and Executive Director of the MTA, had unveiled an ambitious expansion plan during his State of the MTA speech. The plan focused around the Regional Plan Association’s circumferental subway route. This line, using a mix of MTA rights of way and pre-existing tracks would connect to 19 subway lines and three boroughs while avoiding Manhattan.

At the time, I expressed my support, in theory, for the idea while recognizing that the perfect storm of money and political circumstances would have to align for this pipe dream to approach reality, and I left it at that. Last week, Cap’n Transit opined on the state of Brooklyn-Queens subway connectors and briefly mentioned the RPA’s plan as an outgrowth of some long lost subway expansion plans from the 1960s.

So, a-diggin’ we shall go. The year was 1968, and Mayor Lindsay’s New York was a sitting on the rise. The financial crises of the 1970s, from which it would take the city a good twenty years to recover, were nowhere in sight, and expansion was all the rage. Among the city improvement plans was an ambitions, $2-billion MTA expansion plan for the New York City subway system. These plans, developed prior to the MTA’s takeover of the subways on March 1, 1968, called for an expansion of about 40 route miles or what was then 20 percent of the subway system.

As Richard Witkin of The Times reported then, we would have seen a great number of expansion plans come to fruition including:

  • A new Queens line through the planned 63rd St. tunnel that would shadow the LIRR to Jamaica and then veer south to the LIRR main line to the city limits.
  • Subway service out to Douglaston via the 63rd St. tunnel.
  • A Bronx line from the Harlem River to Dyre Ave. via the New York, Westchester and Boston Railroad tracks…
  • …and a Second Ave. Subway from south of Wall St. north to this new Bronx line.
  • An extension of the Nostrand Ave. line out to Mill Basin, an area still in need of subway service today.
  • A subway spur from the Atlantic branch of the LIRR to John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Over the next few years, subway advocates would continue to >trumpet these plans and talk as though they were just around the corner. Two years after this grand unveiling, John J. Gilhooley, a former Transit Authority worker, wrote at length about the MTA’s plans with little doubt as to their feasibility.

As time wore on, the plans changed to become even grander. As proposed maps from the time show, the outer boroughs would see more connections and a far-flung system while Manhattan would see train service to the far West Side, a Second Ave. line and an innovative subway running from 1st Ave. and Houston St. to 1st Ave. and 14th St. via Ave C.

But dreams do not become a reality. The Second Ave. Subway in the 1970s came to crashing halt when the city’s economy did the same. The 63rd St. Tunnel didn’t open until 1989, and the plans to extend the subway to JFK morphed into an airtrain that started service in 2003. We’re still talking about extending the subways westward and that good ol’ Second Ave. Subway.

It sure is fun to dream, eh?

Categories : Subway History

17 Responses to “The subway expansion that never came to be”

  1. Scott C says:

    An even more ambitious plan was the IND second system proposed just before the 1929 stock market crash. They city, especially queens would be vastly different had it been built. I, for one, would love to see the MTA propose something big like this again. Maybe someday, the state and the city will properly fund the MTA and we could get some of it built. With 4 dollar gas here to stay, it boggles the mind that transit is not being aggressively expanded.


  2. R2ro says:

    Ahhhh……Second System, if only you came to be…

    BTW, at least the Archer Ave. Extension was built. Minor in size, but serves many people.

    Really though, I yearn for the days when people thought big and things got done.

  3. Boris says:

    One wonders how these grand schemes could have been conceived at all. In our current climate, where adding a single station costs billions, such vast additions would probably top $1 trillion. What has changed? Is it boundless corruption (my guess), newly added environmental costs, staggeringly more expensive labor?

    My office sits right smack across from the LIRR East-Side Access project.


    Let me tell you…not much happens at this site. Every now and then, a hardhat putters around, but otherwise it’s permanent siesta time.

  4. Smotri says:

    Aren’t there supposed to be over a million new residents by 2030? How are they, in addition to the other 8 million, supposed to get around the city?

  5. Marc Shepherd says:

    The trouble is that we’re living in an era of great skepticism about what government can accomplish. It wasn’t always so. If Robert Moses had had the same interest in railroads as he had in bridges and highways, he could have built the IND Second System two or three times over. These days, nobody gets government funding to build on that scale.

    The higher expense of building stations today is attributable to many factors, among them the lengthy environmental requirements that Robert Moses never had to satisfy. I am not advocating a return to Moses era, just pointing out that the high cost of doing business here isn’t just attributable to “corruption.”

    The Archer Avenue Line, by the way, is a mere pipsqueak compared to the original plan. It was meant to extend much farther into southeastern Queens. They had actually tunneled farther than the current Jamaica Center terminal, but they ran out of money.

    • matthew.persico says:

      Before we get all teary-eyed over Robert Moses, let’s not forget that this was the guy who purposely made the overpasses on the way to the LI beaches too low for buses so that poor, non-car-affording riff-raff would be kept out.

  6. Scott C says:

    Don’t underestimate the amount of corruption in the New York City building trades. There is plenty of graft to go around. There are several reasons why costs are so much higher. The cost of labor is one, the cost of materials – e.g. steel and concrete have exploded, regulatory costs are higher, and the cost of insurance for workers’ comp claims and litigation is much higher.

    What is sad is that other countries are still building subways. While I appreciate low taxes as much as the next person, we shouldn’t forget that they are used for useful public works projects.

  7. Thanks for the link, Ben.

    Boris, the reason you never see anyone at the LIRR East Side Access project is that most of the work is happening underground, in Manhattan. Single stations may cost $1 billion, but that’s in Manhattan, where the tunnels are being dug deep underground with boring machines.

    The extension I talk about in my post would use an existing right-of-way; all that would need to be done is to grade the surface, lay tracks and build stations. Much less than $1 billion per station. The “Northeast Queens Line” on that map would be elevated above the LIE, and the “Southeast Queens Line” would use the LIRR right-of-way, so either one would be much cheaper.

    Other than the Second Avenue Subway, the only lines on that map that would require a whole new tunnel – and haven’t already been built – are the Nostrand Avenue and Utica Avenue extensions. In that less-populated area of Brooklyn, they could probably be built cut-and-cover for a lot less than $1 billion per station. The eastern branch of the L that’s proposed was to be elevated, but that could also be cut-and-cover.

  8. Todd says:

    I too long for the days when big things were accomplished. It’s a shame that The MTA is in such shambles.

  9. Boris says:

    Cap’n Transit, you should come see this site (east-side access at Queens Plaza), if you haven’t already. It’s one horrific mess. From what I understand (and I’ve spoken with one of the workers on the site), there’s no chance of finishing this on time.

    As far as higher costs, other countries deal with this as well — including other cities in the US! — yet are able to build subways quite a bit cheaper than New York. I agree with Scott C that we are mired in graft.

    An analogous point: the BQE has been under continuous construction my entire life, for 40 years. Again, most of the time you just see construction, half-done, for a year or three, until they get around to it again.

    As far as corruption in NYC public works, just take a look at the NY Times search engine…

  10. paulb says:

    I wonder just how much more expensive building subways is today, in real $$. It’s always been a tremendously expensive undertaking. The construction of the IND during the 20s was plagued, riddled, fraught, infected with corruption and waste, as was the entire city government. It was during the Walker administration and there was a saying at the time, “The city may not have gotten the subway it paid for, but it certainly paid for the subway it got.”

  11. Boris, I do see that site relatively frequently from the N train, and I don’t usually see anyone working there. But apparently they’ve managed to dig from 63rd Street almost to Grand Central, and those big piles of gravel in the middle of the Yards all came out of there.

    I’m not saying there’s no corruption. I just don’t think it’s the biggest factor. The improvements I’m suggesting would be a lot cheaper than the Second Avenue Subway or East Side Access.

  12. R2ro says:

    Mr. Kabak:

    Actually, I think this would be a great mini (not mega) project to take on:

    Echoing paulb’s posting, it would be most helpful to see figures for building out the IRT, BRT/BMT, IND in TODAY’S dollars and compare them to say, Second Ave. Subway

  13. Sal says:

    They really need to connect Staten Island to the subway system already. Enough is enough.

  14. Bill says:

    I agree with Sal. Connecting the Mahatan subway with the SIRT will reduce or eliminate the need for the ferry, which is dengerouly overcrowded in the summer months. And that Second Avenue line is needed. big-time!


  1. […] under then Mayor John Lindsay, the newly-created MTA announced plans that would have expanded the subway network by 20%, including new lines to Queens and the Bronx, and a subway spur to JFK airport. The financial crisis of the 1970s put paid to the plans, and the city is nowhere near achieving […]

  2. […] under then Mayor John Lindsay, the newly-created MTA announced plans that would have expanded the subway network by 20%, including new lines to Queens and the Bronx, and a subway spur to JFK airport. The financial crisis of the 1970s put paid to the plans, and the city is nowhere near achieving […]

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