Judging subway construction by its (cut and) cover



S3 Tunnel Constructors work underneath Second Ave. to shore up the bracing system. (All photos via MTA Capital Construction’s CB8 Presentation. Click to enlarge.)

Whenever the topic of Second Ave. Subway construction comes up here — and considering the name of this site, it happens quite frequently — Upper East Siders bemoan the lack of obvious above-ground progress. Nothing is being done at the site, they say. Workers are just mulling about doing not much of nothing, and the project is a waste.

One commenter who lives and works near the Launch Box in the 90s on Second Ave. has repeated these claims for the last few years. “Remember,” commenter Peter Knox wrote over the weekend, “no work is being done on the SAS at all right now, nor has any substantive work been done for months. The thing is completely screwed up and people in the neighborhood are getting fed up.”

On Monday, he again observed idle workers above ground. “I wish it were only three guys looking into the hole,” he said in reply to a fellow UESer who noted similar conditions on the surface. “It is usually six looking and another five drinking coffee and eating doughnuts. There is no way they will be able to build the four stations, as they are now designed, in less than ten years.”

While it is true that the MTA is facing a significant delay in securing a blasting permit, the lack of movement above ground does not mean that nothing is happening at the site. In fact, in its recent presentation to Community Board 8, the MTA along the various contractors working on the project shared a few photos of the progress at the site and construction crews working. These crews though would not be visible to Upper East Siders because they are working underground.

The shot atop this post is just one of four images that show the state of the subway construction underground. The S3 Tunnel Constructors is currently excavating the upper bracing level and has begun installing the bracing system. It isn’t glamorous work, and with Second Ave. decked over with concrete, it isn’t visible to the community. But in order to get the launch box ready for the tunnel-boring machine, it is necessary work that is moving this project forward.

After the jump, three more pictures and some closing thoughts.




As action shots go, these aren’t the most compelling photos. The ones with workers — the photo atop this post and the last of three above — show just one or two contractors. Yet, we cannot deny that something is happening below ground. According to the MTA’s presentation, although surface workers are present only from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. during the week and from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturdays, these workers below ground are on the clock 24/7.

We can’t judge progress on the subway line by its cover yet. The MTA’s blasting permit is currently under review by the Fire Department, and the Department of Buildings along with an expert in old brick masonry is trying to figure out how to ensure the stability of the structurally unsound buildings along Second Ave. When that work can begin, We’ll see more forward movement on this decades old plan. Phase I of the Second Ave. Subway may not arrive until 2017 or 2018, if recent dire predictions prove true, but it is moving forward. The proof is in the pictures.

26 Responses to “Judging subway construction by its (cut and) cover”

  1. E. Aron says:

    “a fellow UESer” – thanks for the shout out!

    I’m glad to be proved wrong. Is it possible to get the run-down again though? How many miles of tunnel are being dug over how many years and for how many dollars?

    • Alon Levy says:

      They’re digging 1.9 miles of tunnel over 10 years, at a projected cost is $5 billion. At $2.6 billion per route-mile, SAS is the most expensive subway construction project in world history, by a large margin: the most expensive subway outside New York, Yokohama’s Minatomirai Line, cost just under $1 billion per route-mile.

  2. peter knox says:

    What do these photos prove? They prove that the same thing happens below ground as happens above–nobody does anything. I see four guys standing and a bunch of parked construction equipment. Exactly what I would expect to see. It took the MTA two and a half years to create these holes in the ground. Big deal. And once again, the MTA is lying about what is happening if it said in its presentation that guys are working on the surface until ten at night. They are not, and haven’t been for months. This issue of the foundations they destroyed is not a small one either. The MTA has dug up five blocks and it already has wrecked two or three buildings and as a result it is now facing million dollar lawsuits. Watch out, people, if you live in a small building somewhere between 91st and 68th. There is a likelihood that the foundation of your building could be compromised also. This project is a disaster and at some point people will admit it. And maybe somebody will be voted out of office because of it, and maybe somebody will be fined or go to jail.

    • Josh Karpoff says:

      This is how almost all large construction projects proceed. The guys you see on the surface are usually either guys from down in the launch box on break or supervisors. Supervisors usually spend most of their time standing around, looking at things. That’s what they’re paid to do. Their job is to stand back, look at things, make sure they’re being done to spec and done safely.

      On the issue of people standing around in photos: Of course nothing is happening, it’s a PHOTO not a video. I know that when I’m visiting construction sites for work, I tend to take my photos while the guys are on break. Why? Because I’m not there to take photos of the workers, I’m there to take photos of the project. I don’t want to be in their way and I don’t want to get run over by heavy equipment. Also, you’re looking at one fixed point in time in these photos. Unless you have another set of photos to look at of the same spot, you’re not going to see any progress.

      On the issue of the whole project being a debacle. I disagree, I think that these are things that come up in big projects that might have been avoided with better construction management, but in the case of government lowest bidder work (which applies to construction management firms too), you get what you pay for. This blog has already on multiple occasions pointed out that the buildings on 2nd Ave that were evacuated were already structurally deficient and known to the Buildings Dept. The issue is that the MTA’s consultant engineers should have checked with the Buildings Dept. to investigate these issues BEFORE it became an impediment to construction. However, as I said before, you get what you pay for. If you want a project with the best and the brightest that goes off with almost no hitches, you need to be willing to pay up.

      • E. Aron says:

        “you get what you pay for.” Indeed.

        From http://www.plannyc.org/taxonomy/term/663, “In late-July 2009, the MTA announced that the expected completion date for Phase One had been extended to December 2016, although the agency conceded that the summer of 2017 may be more likely. The MTA also revised its budget for the project, showing an increase from $4.3 billion to $4.4 billion.”

        So far, $4.5 billion for extending a subway line for about 2 miles. There are other costs that probably are not accounted for. For example:

        From http://www.nypost.com/p/news/r.....We7zklCrxJ, “Construction of the Second Avenue Subway is “destroying every business” in its wake, Mayor Bloomberg said yesterday in an unprovoked dig at the MTA’s handling of the project.” It is. Come here and see how pleasant 2nd Ave. is from about 70th st to 100th st. Add the costs that hard-working business owners are losing to this oft-delayed project.

        And of course, again from http://www.plannyc.org/taxonomy/term/663:

        “There is some concern about the relocation of residents in 60 residential buildings along the planned route.”

        What would you say to being relocated from where you live? How much does that cost?

        And to those of you laughing about what we east siders expect to see above ground in terms of progress – come here and see what’s going on above-ground. I’m not expecting to see something newly constructed above ground. I do expect to see people working for the $4.5 billion that’s being shelled out while destroying businesses and relocating families. Funny, indeed, as long as YOU’RE the one that’s not affected.

        • Alon Levy says:

          The cost of relocation is smaller than you think. The media talks about it because of the human interest angle, but eminent domain on an apartment costs a few hundred thousand dollars in compensation for the owner, plus a few tens of thousands for subsidizing rent for the tenants in their new apartment. It adds up to a small fraction of the overall cost.

          • E. Aron says:

            Yeah it’s easy to measure cost in dollars when you’re not the one that, through no fault of your own, has to find a “comparable” place to live. Benjamin covered this is a previous post, where “comparable” to the UES was determined by the MTA to be Roosevelt Island.

            The point of my comment is that the cost element of this venture is more than its measurement in dollars. It’s easy to be cold and ignore that aspect, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real.

  3. Kid Twist says:

    Why would East Siders expect “obvious, above-ground progress” on a subway line?

  4. mdh says:

    @Kid Twist: LOL. So true.

    I will say, however, that it seemed the TBM for the 7 Line Extension project was able to be dropped into its launch box more quickly after work began than we are seeing for the 2nd Ave Subway TBM. Not saying definitely, just noting that it SEEMS that way. I’d love to see a comparison of the durations for construction, pre-TBM start for both projects.

    Of course, that doesn’t take into account subsurface conditions at both sites, which might (and likely do) vary greatly — not to mention the difficult situation posed by the old buildings in the 92nd-96th St. neighborhood compared to a nearly empty far west side.

    • Denkman says:

      There’s also the fact that they dropped the station excavation and TBMs down previously empty lots without utility relocation or trying to keep an avenue open while digging under it.

      None of the “pain” being felt here is any different than any of the other subways. The original subway was supposed to go under broadway. The businesses there said get out, no way. They built it under Lex. The businesses over there got rich. The businesses on Broadway demanded a subway. They got one, and all while it was being built they screamed bloody murder about losing business. It got built and broadway got rich. One of the problems with Second avenue is that it’s been such a tease. Everytime they suggest building it there is an explosion of speculatory construction that happens. Then it’s not built. Now the whole of the line would be put up in incredibly developed areas as opposed to less dense ones that can be jostled to far less effect.

      I hate to take a Moses-type stance here, but the project needs to be built and the people currently getting crushed by it need to deal. Things will be great if it ever finishes, and the pain will be prolonged if you drag it out. I think they should have closed 2nd avenue all together and made 1st ave 2 way in the construction zone – That would have made the last 3 years of ballet around utilities and decking and everything else much easier, as the whole road could be ripped up and redone.

      Anyway, I don’t want to take the MTA’s side too much here, as their handling of the situation has not been great either. Hopefully they will learn from this when moving forward with more of the project – I would like to reiterate here that just based on existing tunnel, the portion slated for Phase 2 is nearly inevitable.

  5. AlexB says:

    Cool picture. Thanks for the non-anecdotal update.

  6. Marc Shepherd says:

    The fact is, even after the subway is built and operating, Peter Knox will say that nothing is being done.

    • Alon Levy says:

      Marc, are you saying Peter Knox is five? Because chances are anyone older than five won’t live to see the line completed.

      • Nathanael says:

        Idiot. Chances are it’ll be operating within ten years. “Completed” != “Operating”.

        • Alon Levy says:

          No, I meant operating; I was talking about completing Phase 1, not the full line. Two and a half years ago, we were told Phase 1 was supposed to be up and running by 2012. By now, it’s been postponed to 2017-8. A line that falls behind schedule at a faster rate than time passes is unlikely to be built anytime soon.

  7. peter knox says:

    Everything single prediction I have made about this fiasco has been borne out. Anecdotally in this case means authoritatively. I repeat, you don’t go to the MTA for the truth about anything. Eyesight and commonsense, that is all you need. Of course, nothing is going on underneath the ground, or at most, maybe a couple of guys may be down there for a few minutes a day. How do I know? Well, I walked over to the site twice since 4:30, and I have not seen one construction guy on the street. If there were any guys working below the street, believe me, at least one or ten guys would have emerged in the twenty minutes I spent in the area to get coffee or a sandwich or bagels or something. I have seen how these guys don’t work when they are visible to us all, I don’t think they suddenly get mole person work ethic when we can’t see them. These guys have no motivation to work. The longer they string this thing out the better. They know that New York is filled with suckers who will say more money is needed to get the job done, and fares and taxes will go up again and again.

    • Marc Shepherd says:

      Actually, none of your predictions has been accurate. At every stage, you have predicted that nothing would happen. Then something happens. And you predict that nothing more will happen. Lather, rinse, repeat.

      • Alon Levy says:

        Your prediction that the line will be completed doesn’t seem to be coming true, either. The completion date has been pushed back five years in the last two years.

  8. peter knox says:

    Let me be right about some other things. Someday we will learn that the price is going to be at least 6B, probably well over 6B. Also phase one cannot be completed until at least 2020, and someday that will be admitted. Finally the ludicrously extravagant plans for the stations will be drastically scaled back (remember when the jokesters at the MTA were soliciting art work for the new subway?). The SAS disaster is important, it reveals in microcosm the incompetence of governance in NYC. Oh, I forgot, taxes and fares will also continue to go up until there will be very little middle class left in the city to pay them.

    • Marc Shepherd says:

      For once, I agree with you about something. Taxes and fares will indeed go up. And they should. New York City invests far less in its transit system than most other large cities with comparable systems. This is the entire problem. The money has to come from somewhere, and as the system belongs to the public, who else is going to pay for it?

  9. peter knox says:

    But we don’t get what we pay for, and that is the whole point! Waste on the scale of this project is thievery.

    • Nathanael says:

      Look up the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tweed_Courthouse — the scale of waste in this project is really not that big as far as I can tell. The Tweed Courthouse was estimated to have spent *ten times as much* in graft as in actual construction.

      • Alon Levy says:

        Wow. Yes, that was bad. It may have even been worth delaying the opening of the subway by about 20 years to avoid letting Tweed take over construction.

        To put things in perspective, SAS costs between 4 and 10 times as much as comparable projects in high-income, high-cost cities – it depends on whether your base of comparison is a deep-level subway in Tokyo, or subsurface subways in Los Angeles and San Francisco. So the scale of its waste is comparable to that of the Tweed machine.

  10. Bob Olmsted says:

    What a bunch of pessimists! I was five years old in 1929 when the Second Ave subway was first proposed and I fully expect to ride the first train to 96th Street!

    Bob O

  11. peter knox says:

    Since no one heeds what I say anyway, I’ll bury the truth here on an old posting that no one will read. But at least the truth will have been expressed somewhere. The real meaning of my many reports about the fraud perpetrated by the MTA has of course been missed by everyone. I may be the only person in the city who actually pays attention to the SAS project. But it is supposedly a high-profile project. If the MTA wastes so much of our money on a project that is right out in the open (though only I see it), think of the colossal, staggering, mind-blowing waste that must occur every day on every little routing project. Waste and more waste! It is sickening, and that is why New Yorkers should not be taxed to death to fund the MTA.


  1. [...] the real story of the progress of the Second Avenue subway construction can be found below the surface. [2nd Avenue [...]

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