Home Brooklyn From the archives: A history of futility for Utica, Nostrand extension plans

From the archives: A history of futility for Utica, Nostrand extension plans

by Benjamin Kabak

It’s been a busy week for me, and I find myself without much strength to write a full post tonight. So let’s dig into the Second Ave. Sagas Wayback Machine and visit a post on a once-planned and still-needed subway extension deep in the heart of Brooklyn…

The proposed Second System subway expansion plans issued in 1929 called for subway lines down Nostrand and Utica Aves.

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.

The 1939 plans for subway service to 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.

A proposed rendering from 1969 of the Utica and Nostrand Avenue subway expansion plans.

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 Brooklyn would 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.

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John Telesca December 15, 2011 - 7:17 am

I grew up in Mill Basin Brooklyn, and by the 1960s the people living there didn’t want a subway because it would bring in “other”, less desirable people from East Flatbush.

A little mentioned aspect of why the subways weren’t extended was the introduction of express bus service. For a higher charge, a one seat ride that avoided the crowds and skipped the stops of those neighborhoods you didn’t want to stop in along the way. Express buses took a lot of pressure off of pushes to extends the subway lines.

By the way, there was also a Mayor Hyland proposal from the 1920s for a Nostand Ave IND line. Starting from Coney Island, it would go north on Nostrand to the junction, theu up Flatbush Ave, then Washington Ave to connect to the (then) GG, then continue on the Greenpoint where it would cut east and become a 23rd St cross town line. It would have added some sorely needed service to Flatbush Ave.

The 1960s also proposed extending today’s #2 & #5 down Flatbush to where Kings Plaza is now, but the people really didn’t support that for the reasons given above. The politicians will not push expensive plans if the voters aren’t asking for them.

John Telesca December 15, 2011 - 8:19 am

small correction to the above about the Mayor Hylan plan – from the GG line in Greenpoint the line would have gone WEST under the East River to be a 23rd St cross town. I think this plan predated the IND so was more like a rough draft. Still, mid-Flatbush would have gotten a subway and not depend on the crowded & slow B41 bus.

Larry Littlefield December 15, 2011 - 9:14 am

“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.”

So he was in favor of cheaper but worse transt even then. He got the worse transit in the 1970s and 1980s. We got the cheaper transit from 1995 to 2002. And we will get the worse transit from now on.

John is right. The generation that in general fled to the suburbs also fought subway extensions in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That’s one reason the 63rd Street tunnel became a “tunnel to nowhere.” This point should always be mentioned when places such as the southern rim of Brooklyn and SW Queens complain about transit service.

Another factor: south of (roughly) Kings Highway what you have is coastal outwash, in many cases filled in swamps. Subway contruction would NOT have been feasible there. When people found out that elevated trains were planned, it was another reason to be opposed.

pea-jay December 15, 2011 - 12:38 pm

But a generation and a bit later, both this area and the city itself is a different place. The vote could turn out differently

Does anyone know:

1) are subway construction bonds still allowable today?
2) can new sources of revenue be authorized via the ballot?

Al D December 15, 2011 - 9:31 am


You’re right. Racism played a big part in the plans being scuttled, and this also was a factor in the introduction of express bus service. Also playing a big part was the zenith of the auto age and the beginning of flight from the city core to the literally greener pastures of the ‘burbs.

The original planners of course had it right all along. A subway along Utica to Kings Plaza would have solved so many transportation woes of that have plagued that area for nearly as long. A portion of the Kings Plaza lot could be dedicated as a Park n Ride.

BrooklynBus December 17, 2011 - 3:45 pm

And think of all development that would have been spurred along Utica Avenue to replace all the auto related use and tax revenue it would have generated.

Ed December 15, 2011 - 9:58 am

If a new subway is built in Brooklyn, I’d rather see it built across the borough, starting in Bay Ridge and winding up at the Howard Beach and/ or Jamaica basin in Queens. Cutting across, it would allow for transfers between all the old lines moving between downtown Brooklyn and Bay Ridge or Coney Island.

My impression that the reasons why the 2 and the 5 weren’t extended remains, along of course with the financial reasons. The area is low density, there are good geographical reasons why the area is low density (the marshes), and of course the residents like it that way. The residents are correct that subway service would eventually destroy their neighborhoods, though I think they have more to fear from real estate developers than from African-Americans, who are slowly leaving Brooklyn anyway.

Kevin Walsh December 15, 2011 - 10:09 am

“If a new subway is built in Brooklyn, I’d rather see it built across the borough, starting in Bay Ridge and winding up at the Howard Beach and/ or Jamaica basin in Queens. Cutting across, it would allow for transfers between all the old lines moving between downtown Brooklyn and Bay Ridge or Coney Island.”

A great deal of ROW for that is already in place, though the NY & Atlantic would have to share the carfloat freight ops, which it would be reluctant to do.

Larry Littlefield December 15, 2011 - 10:56 am

Isn’t that a four-track ROW with one track in use? That’s what I recall from your walk down the ROW.

It seems as if it could be configured with freight on one side, light rail on the other, and room for platforms.

Kevin Walsh December 16, 2011 - 12:03 pm

I think it’s just 2 track with one in use. Would take a lot of construction to make it another crosstown line.

BrooklynBus December 17, 2011 - 3:46 pm

I believe it was originally 4 track.

AlexB December 15, 2011 - 10:30 am

I always preferred the 1930s IND “second system” scenario where the Utica train come through Williamsburg, providing transfers at the 3/4 and A/C. If most people want to go to Midtown, why make them go through downtown Brooklyn and Manhattan? The transfers at Fulton and Eastern Pkwy would provide 2 very quick ways to get there anyway. Use the Chrystie St Cut and bury the JMZ from the bridge to Marcy – stimulating a ton of growth in the south Williamsburg area. I’d even combine the Hewes and Lorimer stops into 1 station called Union St and provide a connection to the G. Connections from central Brooklyn to north Brooklyn in this area are really lacking and this would make everything much more convenient (with a massive price tag of course). Capacity issues along the Jamaica line would be an issue, but maybe it could be 4 tracked somehow.

Andrew December 15, 2011 - 11:34 pm

Ted Kheel is not a “current advocate” for anything – he died last year.

Extensions down Nostrand or Utica would be wonderful, but not if they’d overload the IRT. One of the reasons Second Avenue is the top priority for a new line is so that, if new lines are built in the outer boroughs, there is enough capacity in Manhattan for additional trains.


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