What You Get For….$258 Million


As the Second Ave. Subway ambles ever onward to a late-2016 revenue service date, updates these days have become few and far between. Sandhogs are hard at work far below the city’s surface, but the headline-grabbing stuff — tunnel-boring machine breakthroughs, street-level explosions — aren’t nearly as frequent any longer. Life just goes on.

Recently, the MTA provided us a photo update of construction progress, and we can see a subway taking shape. As these images remind us of the scope of the project, every now and then, reality intervenes in the form of a price tag. Late last week, the MTA announced a contract award of $258 million for “station finishes, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, ancillary buildings and entrances” for only the 72nd Street state.

We’ve reached a point in the lifespan of sticker shock where I’m not even surprised such a contract cost so much. With the Bleecker St. renovations clocking in at over $125 million, perhaps a $258 million finishes contract is downright cheap. Still, until we as a city and the MTA as an organization gets a better handle on costs, subway construction will be slow and frustrating.

54 Responses to “What You Get For….$258 Million”

  1. Bolwerk says:

    I think that bare rock look is kind of beautiful. I’d be nice if they kept a station or two like that.

  2. MH says:

    But back in the days (Between 1900-1940) it seems like they were constructing subway lines like it was nothing. Now it’s a struggle (because of cost) to even get the ideas off the ground, and when you do it’s in small segments, like 2-3 stations at a time.

    • sharon says:

      What is the reason? Labor Unions. One union will not work in the space or next to another union and all do their best to drag out the hours and the cost. I’m am not some anti-union nut, read the articles and quotes of when the old Yankee stadium was torn down. The union guys spoke of how they threw out the union rule book and worked side by side with other unions to get the job done quickly out of pride and respect for the old stadium and what it stood for. This is something I have known for a long time as I have many construction union friends and family members. Not to mention the labor rates per hour and overtime/night/weekend hourly rates are insane even compared to NJ just across the river. With politicians making it law only tho hire union labor who in turn give campaign dollars back to them, It will be hard pressed to lower construction costs

      • crazytrainmatt says:

        Unions, ADA, and greenfield vs. infield development are a big part of the problem.

        But another, more subtle problem is this: the early subways were the premier engineering project of their era, like the Apollo project or the Internet until recently. As such, I imagine it attracted the top people, motivated by the chance to define the future of urban transport. It’s food for thought that they got almost every significant design question right while later expansions with far more resources made poor choices that limit the system to this day.

        • Bolwerk says:

          I dunno. I don’t see a whole lot of showstopping screw-ups with the prewar system or takeovers from what were prewar takeovers. Maybe the depth on the IND or the narrow platforms on some of the BMT/IRT.

          The big mistakes back then seem to go back to squandered opportunities. For instance, the IND wasn’t badly built overall, but it was built with screwing the IRT and BMT in mind.

          • Someone says:

            On the other hand, the IND adds capacity to overcrowded BMT/IRT lines.

            • al says:

              Negative. Some areas saw more service that provided relief or system expansion (Queens Blvd). However, the IND resulted in replacement or competition in Manhattan and Brooklyn, rather than expansion. 8th Ave and 6th Ave IND trunks replaced (and took the customers of) IRT 9th and 6th Ave Els. They bracketed, and took customers from, IRT 7th Ave Subway. They also took customers from BMT Broadway. IND Fulton subway replaced BMT Fulton El and took customers from BMT. IND Crosstown took ridership from BMT Brooklyn and trolley operations.

              • Someone says:

                The IND took customers only from some places. However, the IND did more good than harm. On no other line could one have a one-seat ride from Harlem to Bed-Stuy, for example.

                • Bolwerk says:

                  That’s debatable, but what’s not very debatable is the IND didn’t need to do the harm it did.

                  • Someone says:

                    I get it, except two things:

                    1) How is that debatable? Taking the 1 to the 3 requires at least one transfer.

                    2) How did the IND do harm

                    • Bolwerk says:

                      1) So?

                      2) Didn’t al cover that? On top of what he said, they demolished many useful lines in anticipation for the an IND line that never came. If it focused on complementing rather than supplementing (=replacing) the IRT/BMT, it would have been much more useful.

                    • Someone says:

                      Lines that never came? The Second Avenue Subway is under construction right now. You mean “overdue”.

                    • Alon Levy says:

                      One quarter of SAS is under construction.

                    • Someone says:

                      And the other three quarters are just plans at this point. I know, it isn’t exactly a replacement for the Second Avenue el.

                    • Bolwerk says:

                      Or Third Avenue El.

                      On the other hand, demand for those 5-6 tracks of service on the east side may have been suppressed by decades of not having it. But those buses are still some of the busiest surface lines in the city.

  3. D.R. Graham says:

    This price tag is pretty cheap considering the list of items rattled off in the post. Plus it will probably be wired with a CBTC ready signal system to avoid the redundancy of labor and costs later.

    • Someone says:

      CBTC? From which supplier, exactly? Bombardier, with its crappy products?

      • al says:

        Isn’t it going to be fixed block? With Q at 96th St, 10-13tph is what you can expect.

        • Someone says:

          Not exactly. The MTA said that all new lines would get moving block signals that could handle up to 40 tph, with supplementary wayside signals.

        • D.R. Graham says:

          The main reason for even placing the R160s on the Q was because of the trains CBTC readiness and the future 2nd Avenue line. Now how that plays out when the 2nd Avenue line is wired and the rest of the Broadway line is not when the 2nd Avenue line opens is beyond me.

          • Someone says:

            A signal handoff (or rehabbed signals).

            Same thing with the Queens Boulevard line- when the line gets CBTC, there will be signal handoffs at certain junctions so that the trains could be switched from CBTC to fixed-block.

            Anyway, by 2029, the Broadway line will get CBTC, so by then a signal handoff wouldn’t be necessary.

  4. AlexB says:

    These stations are averaging three quarters of a billion dollars each, while the entire second avenue phase 1 tunneling is only half a billion. Check the mta’s capital expenditures dashboard. Mined stations under a busy dense avenue are a nightmare, apparently…

    • Alon Levy says:

      Link? My recollection is that back when the project was $4 billion, it was $1 billion for tunneling and $1 billion for each of the 3 stations.

    • sharon says:

      There is not reason for fancy stations in NYC. Unlike other areas where the idea is to make fancy stations to get people to use mass transit, NYC just needs functional stations.

      • Chris A says:

        Compare a NYC station with DC’s stations. DC’s are designed to keep on-boarding and off-boarding passenger flows as separate as possible. That’s a little design issue, but important. Functional stations can be elegant if well designed – and they might even be cheaper if more thought is given to planning and design in the early stages of the project.

        • Bolwerk says:

          I assume you mean the fare control. Maybe I’m wrong, but my impression is DC passenger flows seem worse than NYC’s. I have trouble seeing how the DC fare control segregation doesn’t cause some confusion. Instead of getting in one person’s way going the wrong way through a turnstile, a DC rider entering might get into several exiters’ way to find an entrance.

          Though, maybe that’s less a design problem and more that a larger proportion of the system’s users on a given day might be unfamiliar with it.

    • Someone says:

      Apparently, the MTA is making the project cost more money than it should be.

  5. Jerrold says:

    Ben, are you sure that the 2016 date for revenue service is STILL realistic?

  6. John Doe says:

    Why can’t we build entire subway systems overnight like the Chinese? If they can do it, why can’t we?? We used to build great things in this country, what happened? Enough is enough already, it’s time to eliminate those do nothing, lazy unions!

    • AG says:

      because china is “developing” – but has a lot of cash… NYC is “mature” and short on cash.

      • Alon Levy says:

        What AG said. China is growing fast enough that it can plug in a significant share of money back into investment rather than consumption and maintenance.

        It also helps that its construction costs are lower than New York’s as a percentage of urban GDP per capita. (Beijing and Shanghai have about one third the incomes of New York and one tenth the construction costs), but Europe’s construction costs relative to incomes are even lower and you don’t see this much investment, since the systems are mature and growth is glacial.

        For what it’s worth, the Dual Contracts were even cheaper than Chinese construction today, again even relative to incomes (though more expensive than European construction today), and together with very fast population growth New York indeed managed to build 4 subway trunk lines in 5 years.

  7. Andrew Smith says:

    Rather than just whining about the costs, why don’t we, the readers of this blog, try to make things better?

    Given that the cost of building infrastructure in New York seems to range anywhere from 5x to 10x more than it is in places with the most efficient systems, we clearly deviate from best practices in a bunch of places.

    Ideally, one comprehensive law would replace the current system with an optimal system, but that won’t happen because every costly inefficiency has its supporters, and, taken all together, those supporters are strong enough to kill reform.

    But say, rather than pushing for comprehensive reform, we picked a single inefficiency — one that adds significantly to costs but commands relatively few supporters with relatively low intensity — and we push to reform that.

    How can we, a group of several hundred (thousand?) people who read a blog, push for reform?

    1. Research the issue thoroughly and construct a mega-post here that definitively demonstrates the benefit of the reform. Invite the smartest and most articulate reform opponents to tear the things apart as best they can and fix any problems they identify so the final post is bullet proof.

    2. End the post with some way for readers who support its position to sign on, with real names and cities/boroughs of residence, to demonstrate what backing we’ve been able to gather. (No, I don’t think it will have any legal weight, but I still think using verifiably real names is important in convincing politicians that support is real.)

    3. Scan all the media that cover the subways for stories related to the need for expansion or the impossible costs. Jump into every comment section with a punchy overview of the reform and it’s benefits, followed by a link to the full argument here and a plea for people who follow the link to sign on as supporters.

    4. If we start getting decent numbers, I’d bet Ben will be able to get the reporters who cover the MTA for the local news outlets to write stories about the movement. Ben clearly knows most of these folks already and this is exactly the sort of thing reporters will cover on a slowish news day. If we got really, really lucky the story might get big enough in the next few months that someone will ask one of the aspiring mayoral candidates where he/she stood on the matter.

    And that’s just one line of attack. I’m sure there are dozens of viable strategies. We have hundreds of people here to devise ideas and, as much as I disagree with other comment writers some times, I’d wager the median IQ here is pretty high, so many of those ideas are bound to be decent.

    You with me Ben? Anyone else? Or should I just slink back into my hole?

    • I’m with you, but such a project will take some time.

      • Andrew Smith says:

        I think I’d start by reading existing research. I’m sure there’s a decent amount out there from academics, the MTA itself, other transit agencies, etc.

        Split up the reading among folks who agree to participate.

        Create an online Doc that all can access and add to.

        Each time you read a new factor that makes NY more expensive than elsewhere, add it to the list. When you see something that’s already on the list from another study, add the info on that factor from your study.

        Perhaps it would be worthwhile to create a second list of best practices administered elsewhere and how much money they saved.

        After that, comes the tricky bit: estimating the difficulty of making each change and making a cost-benefit-feasibility calculation and a plan of action.

        • Alon Levy says:

          What I’d like to do sometime is get a breakdown of costs on multiple projects by item. So, how much it costs to relocate utilities, how much it costs to build a station shell, how much it costs to turn the station shell into an actual station, and so on. Compare New York, Paris, Tokyo, Madrid, and maybe a few others, and see if the cost ratios of those cities persist or if some tasks display a greater variance than others.

    • Bolwerk says:

      Get Andy Cuomo on board and this might go somewhere.

    • Nathanael says:

      Research: start by figuring out how a group of landlords and the NYC Department of Buildings managed to get the MTA to pay for renovations to various apartment buildings — which were entirely, legally, the responsibility of the landlords, and which the NYC Department of Buildings should have ordered them to fix years ago.

      There’s a phenomenon going on in NYC which is also documented in San Francisco — other agencies feel that MTA is a piggybank which they can loot at will. Why is this? What the hell is wrong with the other agencies? Why does the Comptroller allow them to do this?

  8. Suranga says:

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