For a few pieces that I’m readying for next week, I’ve delved into the political history of numerous subway expansion efforts. Most resemble the failed Staten Island subway plans in that the Transit Authority proposes an extension, the Board of Estimates approves the program, the Mayor signs it into law and then, nothing. The money isn’t there; the cost estimates skyrocket. Something gets in the way, and that something is a failure of leadership.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a few foolhardy men who believed they can change the city used their positions of power and influence to secure lucrative contracts that allowed them to build and operate the first subway systems. The Interborough Rapid Transit company gained its premiere spot through some officially-sanctioned monopolies and eventually accepted the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit as a competitor. The men behind these private companies were out to turn a profit, and they did so by driving workers who built the subway hard and pushing the city for high payments for expansion plans.
In the 1920s, in response to both the financial successes of the IRT and BMT and the overcrowded subways, Mayor John Hylan proposed a city-owned and operated competitor. Thus, the Independent Subway System, one of the most overbuilt subway systems in the world, was born. As the city’s Board of Estimates artificially deflated the fare for political gain, the subway companies faltered financially, and the city eventually assumed control of all three in a grand unification scheme. The IND Crosstown line — today’s G train — opened in 1937, and after that, the pace of subway expansion in New York City slowed considerably.
After unification, parts of subway routes in the outer boroughs with some connections into Manhattan would open, and the Chrystie St. Connection in 1967 involved a massive undertaking. These snippets of subway routes were originally proposed as part of the ambitious Second System, but sapped of money by the Great Depression and political will by the bad guy in our tale, most of that system hasn’t seen the light of day.
Today, there are glaring holes in subway service. Some train lines end, built with expansions in mind, have been stuck at their terminals for 80 years. Other major landmarks — such as the city’s airports — remain frustratingly out of reach of a one-seat ride to Manhattan. Still other parts of the city once slated for subway access — the Sheephead Bays and Eastern Queens of the Big Apple — remain disconnected. It is for lack of trying.
As Robert Moses built out the city’s roads throughout the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, subway construction took a back seat to the automobile. Moses didn’t allow space for a train connection to what was then Idlewild Airport as he built various highways out to the airport. He foreclosed the Verrazano Bridge to an eventual rail connection by engineering a grade too steep for the city’s subways. He pushed aside proposals to fund transit and would have nothing of expansion plans.
Today, the irony is that the subways need a Robert Moses. They need a big dreamer with the proper political clout to push through major projects. Nearly two and a half years ago, then-MTA head Elliot Sander proposed an ambitious 40-year plan that included the circumferential subway, cross-Bronx routings and an expansive Second Ave. Subway. It was a new Second System, and it remained a dream on paper.
Sander didn’t have the political influence to garner much support for his plan, and he was out at the MTA by the middle of 2009. His replacement Jay Walder is more focused on the technological innovation of transit and is trying to, amidst an ongoing budget crisis, bring a modern sense and sensibility to the MTA and New York City Transit. Beyond the projects already in progress, Walder hasn’t paid much lip service to a growth plan.
So we wait until a transit champion comes along. It won’t be any time soon, but an ambitious plan to invest in the subways and expand the tracks eastward, southward, westward could stimulate the construction economy and provide an opportunity for growth in a crowded city. Who will one day be that leader?