Link: NYT Mag goes inside the Second Ave. Subway


Earlier today, I found myself at the 63rd St. F station for the first time in a while, and it was a sight to behold. The faux-wall and red tiling are nearly all gone from the platform level, and a blue construction wall marks the station as a work zone. The fake dropped ceiling is gone, and the original two-track cavern shape is clearly visible. I snapped a shot that seems indicative of the wait that remains before the Second Ave. Subway runs through that station, but work is clearly moving forward.

This weekend, The New York Times sent a photographer and a writer from the magazine into the Second Ave. Subway, albeit a few blocks north. Kim Tingley wrote about the sandhogs building the 72nd St. station cavern as Richard Barnes snapped a series of breathtaking photos that show the scope and ambition in the project. The 10 shots in the slideshow left me wanting more.

The photos, though, weren’t the only thing of which I wanted more. Tingley’s piece was a short bit on the workers risking their lives to build the subway 80 years in the making, and she did mention the costs — $86 million 80 years ago for a full line, $4.5 billion for a 33-block extension today. That by itself is worth a story. Why does this construction — which doesn’t cross a river and adds only a few new stations — cost so much? We’ve heard reasons ranging from environmental impact mitigation to the depths of stations to work rules and safety requirements. At some point, though, a publication with the resources and space of The Times should level a serious gaze on infrastructure costs. The photos — especially No. 3 and No. 6 — are fantastic, but the story runs just as deep as the station caverns.

34 Responses to “Link: NYT Mag goes inside the Second Ave. Subway”

  1. lawhawk says:

    Why does the infrastructure cost so much to build? Indeed. That’s the multi-billion dollar question.

    But there’s a few others in the article. Why are there only 475 people working on the project as the article indicates. Would increasing that number speed construction and reduce overall costs by reducing the duration of the project?

    You’re absolutely right that more resources need to be dedicated by journalists to untangling how and why it costs so much to build out new infrastructure in NYC metro (or to rehab existing infrastructure).

    Is it the bidding process, the lack of real cost reduction possible among the companies that regularly bid on these projects (it’s a handful of huge internationals like Betchel, Parsons, Kiewit, Skansa, etc., plus locals like Schiavone, Yonkers, etc.) that inflate the costs, union rules as some regularly argue, environmental and safety regulations, or other factors at play? Why do US costs for these kinds of projects outstrip the costs overseas? We aren’t getting the bang for the buck – and that means that already limited resources are strained even further by these big ticket projects and lead to real limitations on design (lacking express tracks for the 2d Ave line for instance, or dropping a station from the 7 Line extension).

    • Bushwick Licked says:

      Indeed, $86 million for the entire line equals only $1.1 billion when adjusted for inflation. Even if the project went over budget at double the cost, it would still cost half the money for the short Phase I section.
      Why does everything cost SO MUCH more today?
      The technology back then was the most advanced known at the time using the most advanced equipment so it’s completely disingenuous to claim “modern” technology has driven up the costs.
      Corruption is the only answer.

      • BoerumBum says:

        “Corruption is the only answer.”

        I think that answer might be a bit limited and jingoistic.

        I would be interested in seeing a comparative study of mortality rates between the initial construction efforts surrounding the IRT, BMT, IND & today’s construction efforts (7 train ext, SAS, & East Side Access).

        Additionally, I recall that a while back, Ben posted some pics of the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station being built. Taking a look at the scope of the above-ground impact of that single item makes me wonder what living around a 19th century construction effort might be like.

        • al says:

          Ground subsidence was a serious hazard during early 20th Century cut and cover construction. OTOH, they often quickly platformed over the cut and restored surface traffic. However, those platforms sometimes caved in. Beyond fatalities, there were issues with high injury rate and with accidental and negligent dynamite explosions during cut phase through solid bedrock.

          There was a recent issue with overbilling by contractors:

          Considering profits from many of the contracts let for the projects are a percentage of total cost, you also have to wonder if there is collusion among contractors and AE firms to not use best designs, construction practices, technologies and strategies to reduce overall cost and project length.

          Finally, but not last, how much of the cost is to make the stations look good, but isn’t very functional. Much of the savings on low cost metro construction is due to have one activity build out multiple components. For example, using a large enough TBM to fit both the platform for the station and the tracks in the tunnel bore (ala Barcelona L9). Each track has a level and in between the stations, there could be layup tracks and switching and transfer ramps.

  2. alek says:

    I am wondering when the F is rerouted on the 53rd street corridor due to the 63rd street station rehab are the workers using the F platform or it on the blue wall? It tempting to go over the barricade and take a look at the work zone.

    • On the Downtown/Brooklyn side, there’s a slight gap in the construction fence, and you can take a limited peak into the preexisting platform. Not sure what’s happening when the rerouting is in place, but they’ve clearly stripped the entire station — both the revenue and non-revenue sides — of its finishes.

  3. John-2 says:

    The seeds of the current problem go back to the fact that the city never should have built the Sixth Avenue subway over an east side Second Avenue line back in the 1930s. It was the city’s desire (going back to the John Hylan days) not to have most of the Independent’s new lines chart out underserved sections of New York, but to compete with already existing BMT and IRT subway lines that led to the Sixth Avenue work, which included having to build around an existing line (PATH) for 1 3/4 miles, and snake under the BMT and over the LIRR/PRR lines at Herald Square to serve a route already with two subway lines a block or less away in the midtown area.

    It was the cost overruns on Sixth Avenue just prior to municipal takeover of the IRT and BMT that set the tone that subway construction couldn’t be brought in on budget or on time, and that’s a situation that’s continued for the past 70-plus years. A full Houston-to-125th Street Second Ave. line probably could have been built in the 1930s for the cost of the three-mile Sixth Avenue route, and Manhattan’s underground mass transit layout wouldn’t be the lopsided-to-the-west mess it is today (in contrast, and from the ‘added-but-necessary costs’ aspect, two of the photo captions in the Times’ slideshow mentions the possible negative health aspects even today that workers on the tunnels face. The added cost of providing better working conditions underground in 2012 compared to 1932 is one aspect of the cost increases you can’t do away with).

    • Jeff says:

      The whole concept of the IND was completely shortsighted and wasteful, a stupid attempt by Mayor Hylan to settle his grudge against private railroad companies due to being fired by one. The money wasted on the redundant Sixth Ave, Fulton Street, and Concourse Lines could all have been better spent and makes you wonder what would the system have been like today had the city chosen to continue to develop the system back then instead of starting from scratch with the IND.

      • John-2 says:

        The cost overruns on Sixth Avenue look even worse when you consider the budget clock on the completed line didn’t stop even after the cost overruns of the late 1930s, but lasted all the way to 1968, when the express tracks from West 4th to 34th were completed, along with the extension to 57th. It was the fact they deliberately ran a line around and under the ROW of an existing subway line that made finishing the three-mile Sixth Avenue segment into a 35-year project.

        Throw those 1959-68 costs in (not even including the Christie Street connection costs to hook into the Manny and Willie B, which would have been done for a Second Avenue line as well), and the decision to do Sixth Avenue, instead of doing a second east side subway line 80 years ago to replace the Second and Third Avenue els, was even more insane. It was also, in hindsight, the template for New York’s rail construction woes over all the ensuing years.

    • pea-jay says:

      Out of curiosity, does the Second Avenue Subway connection to the Broadway express tracks make it a BMT service?

      • Jerrold says:

        That’s an interesting point.
        Is it possible that there is no more distinction between BMT and IND, except when we are talking about subway history?

  4. Jordan says:

    What really gets me is the reduction, over time, from the planned 6- or 4- track trunk line to a pitiful 2-track spur. Every North/South Manhattan trunk line constructed from 1904 onward, not to mention the trunk lines in Brooklyn and Queens, has had four tracks. To build a line that will be inadequate the very day it opens is just sad…and totally unsound from an economic standpoint. I can’t imagine that the return on the incremental cost of having express tracks is not way higher than on the two track being built.

    Can anyone think of a highway in the Metropolitan area that was built with just 2 lanes in order to save money? That would never happen. It’s just another case of where the standards applied to mass transit give short shrift to subways.

    • pea-jay says:

      Aren’t most systems today built with just two tracks? I certainly do appreciate the extra capacity and redundancy that come with the express-local configuration but I am hard pressed to think of any city that has done that from scratch after the conclusion of WWII.

      It’s my impression that if a city wants to add extra capacity, they just improve the signaling/control to push more trains per hour. If they want to speed up crosstown flow, they built separate suburban train network with through-routing and frequent core service splitting off to lesser traveled branches in the periphery and integrated that into a master tariff structure so a trip can be easily and quickly made from a distant location using a suburban train and a quick subway ride on one ticket.

      NYC of course has none of that but at least we skate by on the over-investments made by private firms and the city in a more exuberant, less regulated time.

    • Alon Levy says:

      When you cut-and-cover, the marginal cost of two additional tracks is smaller than when you use a TBM.

      • Bushwick Licked says:

        But it’s wasteful to bore single-track tunnels for the small loading gauge of NYC subways.
        Why not bore two larger diameter tunnels allowing double tracks in each?
        And $2 billion for just one lousy station with the 7 extension is more proof that America is as corrupt as any banana republic – far worse.

        • Alon Levy says:

          Because larger diameter tunnels are more expensive than smaller diameter ones. All else being equal, cost scales with the amount of lining required, which is proportional to diameter (and not area).

          Of course, sometimes they bore one large-diameter tunnel instead of two small-diameter ones. Japan does that for HSR tunnels to save money; the diameter of a double-track Shinkansen tunnel is barely more than that of a single-track HSR tunnel built to European standard.

          (By the way, here, the Canada Line’s underground half is dual small-diameter bore downtown and across the False Creek and cut-and-cover south of Olympic Village; the cut-and-cover bit was deeply unpopular with the storeowners and so the next subway line will almost certainly be done dual-bore again, or maybe cut-and-cover under a minor street.)

    • Andrew says:

      In what way will it be inadequate?

      Two tracks, if filled to capacity, can carry over 40,000 riders in each direction – more than a 30(!!!)-lane highway. A lane and a track are not quite comparable.

      • al says:

        New Yorkers are used to 3, and 4 track subways. We are spoiled. Even when it doesn’t make much sense, there is a bias towards express.

  5. Alas, once you start asking questions about costs, you lose the access that gets the pretty pictures. Maybe the NYT is big and powerful enough that it could avoid the journalistic access conundrum, but for the rest of us, it’s either pretty pictures or incisive reporting – you don’t get both.

  6. Hank says:

    Ben, completely agree about looking into the costs. However, it seems intuitive to me that cut and cover construction that lost a man a mile, dealt only with 4-5 story tenements (and occasionally collaped them), and lacked all modern safety standards and equipment is cheaper. What the SAS is doing (deep-bore, ADA-compliant, digging right under 30-50 story buildings) is going to be exponentially more expensive, even accounting for inflation.

    • Sure, but also exponentially more expensive that similar deep-bore TBM projects being built out contemporaneously in other developed, non-China nations? That’s the problem.

      • Bruce M says:

        Indeed it would be far more informative if the Times had done some sort of comparative study of the costs per mile of 2nd Avenue vs. other recent subway construction in say Los Angeles, or the Fukutoshin Line in Tokyo. I believe both involved extensive deep-bore tunneling, and in developed, “expensive” cities in countries that pay high relatively high labor rates.

        • pea-jay says:

          Also how does this compare to Water Tunnel #3 which used a much more extensive amount of TBM activity, albeit without station caverns. And thats another thing. Is the cost being driven by the tunnels themselves or the massive station carveouts and ancillary activities that do interact with the surface?

          • R. Graham says:

            It’s more the stations. The tunnels are the easy part. The stations other than 96th are being carved without cut and cover. Blasting, shot-create and all the ventilation that early 20th Century subway construction did not provide.

  7. AG says:

    Well of course there are many factors… but simple measure is the location. It of course would be cheaper to dig a tunnel in Buffalo – Toledo – or even Newark.

    • Alon Levy says:

      It costs more to build a predominantly above-ground Washington Metro extension in the Virginia exurbs than to build a fully underground subway in Barcelona.

  8. Al D says:

    Could they have/Can they just focus on extending the Q to 63 St for starters and get that segment up and running now? That would greatly increase travel options right away I think?

    • BoerumBum says:

      This is an idea I’ve wondered about, myself… Why isn’t the approach to roll out new stations a couple at a time? (starting, perhaps, with the cross-town portions of the build @ 63rd, 125th, etc…) That way, you reduce by one the number of required connections for a large number of people.

    • Jeff says:

      Besides the fact that the uptown and downtown platforms are on different levels, I don’t think there’s a switch close enough to the station for trains to turn around in.

      • R. Graham says:

        Hence how pointless it is. The switching would have to be done just north of 57th Street. Even still you wouldn’t have the luxury of using both levels at 63rd because there are not active tail tracks linking both levels just east of the station like Utica. Which means you would use one level at 63rd and the big debate is which level is best. The one that allows for those transferring from the Q to cross platform for the Queens bound F or the opposite level where they would have to scramble to the other level, but would allow downtown bound F passengers to cross platform to a Q train that must leave the station immediately or cause bottle necking at 57th Street from the next Q waiting to single track to 63rd Street.

  9. Rick says:

    I think Graham is correct when he says “the method of choice”…

    The NYT is not looking at the choices made in the design and implementation of the project. The design was basically sole sourced by the MTA to the MTA. Why not have a design competition and get the top firms in the world to compete?

    ps. Amongst many sins, the phasing of the work is really terrible. The tunnels have been bored and the surface work for some stations just beginning. If the surface work had been started years ago, the system would be years closer to being finished. It comes down to management. We don’t have an A team here. If they read this blog, they should be ashamed of what they have done. In actuality, they should be fired. What ability is there to hold any of the managers at the top or the middle accountable? None. We just feed them with more money and accept the slippage. We deserve better. This is the kind of investigative article that The Atlantic magazine excels at.

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