In the annals of New York City subway history, the Second Ave. Subway carries with it the grand stigma of futility. First proposed in 1920, the SAS went through various iterations, groundbreakings and funding crises before the current construction efforts relaunched in 1995. Barring an economic catastrophe, at least Phase 1 of the Second Ave. line will open before the end of the decade, and the Second Ave. Subway will pass from myth to reality.
Elsewhere, though, other subway expansion plans have languished for nearly as long as the Second Ave. Subway. While none of these plans have as tortured a history as the future T line does, many of them are common-sense system expansions that have been on and off the city’s transit table since the early days of New York’s subway system. Take, for instance, the Marine Park-Sheepshead Bay-Gerritsen Beach area.
Although Brooklyn’s subway service is nearly as comprehensive as Manhattan’s, a glance at the borough map reveals a large gap in service in the southern reaches of eastern Brooklyn. The Marine Park-Sheepshead Bay-Gerritsen Beach triangle is serviced only by the B and Q along Flatbush Ave. to the west and a bunch of local buses. To the north, the Flatbush Ave./Brooklyn College stop serves as a terminal for the 2 and 5 trains, and with Nostrand Ave. running south from that station, that road would serve as the natural starting point for new service.
In fact, that’s long been the dream of city planners, and that final stop on the 2 and 5 wasn’t built as such. Rather, it was supposed to lead into the Nostrand Ave. subway line. Talk of the Nostrand and Utica Ave. subway extensions pop up as early as 1910 when The Times discusses future expansion of the young system into Brooklyn. A century ago, planners anticipated a branch of the subway running out to the ocean, and the IRT awarded its Brooklyn expansion plans in two contracts. Only the first part saw the light of day, and when Flatbush Ave./Brooklyn College opened in 1920, no one knew this station would become the de facto terminal for the IRT.
In 1929, when the city unveiled its ambitious Second System proposal, both Nostrand and Utica Ave. extensions were included. The Nostrand spur would have completed the IRT’s early 1910 plans for subway expansion, and the Utica Ave. route would have been the southern part of the new Williamsburg train lines. A 1939 post-Depression version of the Second System had the Utica Ave. line reaching Floyd Bennett Field.
As we know from the history of the Second Ave. subway, though, a World War interrupted the city’s ambitious expansion plans, and the Nostrand and Utica subway lines were once again shelved for nearly 15 years. As the mid-1950s dawned and the city looked to build the Second Ave. line, so too did it give approval for the Nostrand and Utica Avenue extension plans. The Nostrand spur would again see what we now call the 2 and 5 extended south while the Utica Avenue plans were scaled back. Instead of a new line coming south from Williamsburg, the 1950s plan called for a spur from what is today the end of the 4 line in Brooklyn. The extensions were estimated to cost $82.15 million — or around $656 million in today’s money — and be ready for service by 1960.
But the city’s debt and deferred system maintenance led to a different reality. By 1957, it was clear that the two subway lines in Brooklynwould not see the light of day, and as transportation money went to modernization instead of growth, the plans laid dormant for another ten years. In 1968, the city again approved a massive subway expansion plan that included the Nostrand and Utica Avenue lines, and again, the city’s financial situation would intervene. Over the next three years, the bond request that would fund these expansion plans became a hot political issue. The city and state had no money, and many transit watchers did not believe the price tags for the capital plans were accurate. With Theodore Kheel, a current advocate for free transit, banging the financial drum, voters turned down the transportation bond request, and although another bill would pass a few years later, the Nostrand and Utica Avenue subways died in 1971.
On March 21, 1971, The Times penned a requiem for these plans. City planners thought the Utica Ave. routing would lead to even more overcrowding on the already-stuffed IRT lines and wanted to extend the Canarsie BMT — today’s L train — instead. The price tags for the two projects had reached $350 million in 1971 or $1.8 billion today, and no one believed that estimate to be accurate. These concerns still ring true today, and when Kheel attained his victory in the early 1970s, the Nostrand and Utica Ave. plans would become but another unbuilt relic of the subway system.
Today, the areas that would have enjoyed subway system 80 or 90 years ago are among the more isolated and car-dependent neighborhoods in Brooklyn. While the Second Ave. line, whose fate was seemingly intertwined with the Nostrand and Utica Avenue plans, is now under way, no one is advocating for service in southern Brooklyn even though the city would be better off for it.