Home Capital Program 2015-2019 The 2nd Ave. Subway as a capital bargaining chip

The 2nd Ave. Subway as a capital bargaining chip

by Benjamin Kabak

The Second Ave. Subway station at 86th St. is beginning to look like a real subway stop. What happens with Phase 2 is anyone’s guess. (Photo: MTA Capital Construction / Rehema Trimiew)

Earlier on Wednesday, while browsing MTA news, I came across an interesting AP piece published on Crain’s New York with quite the inflammatory headline. “Why the Second Ave. subway could be delayed—again” the article said. With news of delays on the 7 line extension — this month due to emergency radios, last time due to elevators, escalators and vent plans — my first thought was that the December 2016 revenue service date was just a mirage. As I read closer, though, I realized this was about the next phase of the Second Ave. Subway and not the current one.

Phase 1 of the long-aborning subway — north from 57th St. and 7th Ave. to 96th St. and 2nd Ave. — is fully funded. Work may stretch into next year, but the money is in place. At this point, the only delays will arise if (or perhaps when) the MTA can’t get the project across the finish line, and those won’t come into view for another 18-20 months. Phase 2, despite a lack of concrete price tag, was included in the 2015-2019 capital plan, and as we know, that capital plan remains very much a work in progress.

Earlier on Wednesday during the MTA Board meeting, agency head Tom Prendergast spoke about the affect a lack of funding could have on expansion plans. It’s a good 18 months until the MTA has to face this reality, and in the past, New York has come up with interim measures to keep capital programs moving on a two- or three-year basis. But the threat of a work slowdown at a time when the city is finally re-learning how to build new subway lines looms large.

Benjamin Mueller of The Times summarized the state of the capital program with the funding picture hazy at best:

The chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on Wednesday sought to reassure New Yorkers that the agency would secure the necessary funding to forestall what transit experts were warning about — a slump in service, overflowing subway trains and more frequent delays. The sense of alarm has been occasioned by a $15 billion gap in the agency’s five-year capital plan, which is meant to finance long-sought repairs and improvements to the city’s transit system. Transit officials and elected leaders are currently in discussions about how to fill that gap or, alternatively, to pare down costs.

But the authority’s chairman, Thomas F. Prendergast, warned that future stages of major construction plans and renovations for the overtaxed system were at risk if officials were unable to come to an agreement. The full five-year plan calls for $32 billion.

“For a period of time, maybe a year or two, we’re O.K.,” Mr. Prendergast said after a board meeting. “But as you start to get down that path, we get to the point where if we don’t have money we can’t award design contracts, we can’t award construction projects.”

We could quibble for hours over whether the “or, alternatively” at the end of the firs excerpted paragraph should just said “and,” but the truth remains that the capital plan funding question is very much up in the air. Already a long, drawn-out affair, the Second Ave. Subway could very much be a casualty of politicking and lukewarm support for transit from the Governor.

Meanwhile, the Mayor went to Albany and did a great imitation of the pot calling the kettle black “”The State must do more to fund the MTA’s capital plan – a situation that is reaching crisis levels,” Bill de Blasio said. “The current MTA capital plan is woefully underfunded. The State’s investment has steadily declined over the last 14 years.”

So too, de Blasio declined to mention, has the city’s investment. They contribute the paltry sum of $100 million a year to a multi-billion-dollar capital plan, and de Blasio has proposed trimming that figure by 60 percent. Transit advocates, such as the Straphangers Campaign, were not impressed. “We need the Citiy’s leadership to press the State to do much better for the MTA’s millions of riders,” Gene Russianoff said in a statement.

There are only so many times we can say the same thing about the capital plan, but it’s hard to underscore the needs. The subways are more crowded that ever, and to keep up with demand, the system has to be able to sustain more frequent service in more areas. With the billions of dollars requested, the alternative is a scary one indeed.

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Emilio February 26, 2015 - 9:02 am

On the east side, projects above 96th Street don’t get much traction or love from Albany or City Hall. Whether it’s capital projects or mundane stuff such as snow removal, park maintenance or policing; it’s just a fact of life.

So I wouldn’t be too surprised if the MTA and friends eventually skip phase 2 to go straight to phase 3.

Brandon February 26, 2015 - 9:19 am

With construction costs what they were for the first 2 miles and 3 stations, its kind of upsetting to think of shoveling more money into the fire to get to 125th Street.

I’m very curious how the costs of other capital program projects such as signal updates, station rehabs and state of good repair work compare to anywhere else in the world. Just as bad as the big ticket construction work, or somewhat better?

Henry February 26, 2015 - 2:15 pm

Comparisons between signal comparisons wouldn’t be very useful. Very few employ interlining on the scale that the NYC subway system does, with trunk lines interweaving with other trunk lines and constant service changes. Signalling is going to be a hell of a lot cheaper if you can treat the line as a closed system and shut it down without screwing other lines over.

Brandon February 26, 2015 - 5:16 pm

The L line has no interlining. The CBTC upgrade cost $329 million (http://www.railwaygazette.com/.....-live.html) for 10 miles of track.

CBTC on Paris line 13 (a line which largely dates back to the 1930s, like many of the the IND lines here and probably much of the equipment on the L previously) cost 95 million euro ($106 million at current rates) for 15 miles of track. http://www.tsd.org/RATP%20Line%2013.htm

Obviously this is a very rough comparison without much context but that’s a huge difference in cost per mile.

Spendmor Wastemor February 26, 2015 - 8:48 pm

And the French are not exactly known as a bastion of low wage low cost low overhead frugality.

yourmom February 26, 2015 - 10:54 pm

actually, they are, relative to the US. construction is way cheaper in France than here, in both public and private development. they don’t overengineer everything, they don’t face 17 lawsuits on every project, and they don’t have weird, archaic bidding laws.

Justin Samuels February 26, 2015 - 10:25 am

The Second Avenue Subway is being built to relieve congestion on the Lexington Avenue Line. Building it to 125th Street and Lexington (where one could also transfer to the Metro North) is essential.

Also Manhattan above 96th Street has massive real estate investments. Columbia’s expansions, lots of new condos and co-ops, tear downs, gut renovations, etc. The 125th and Lexington Pathmark site was sold for 40 million dollars.

Also the tunnels in Spanish Harlem were already built in the 70s/ Phase 2 will happen before Phase 3 and Phase 4. The current capital budget funds Phase 2, but just the engineering study before phase 3 and phase 4.

sonicboy678 February 26, 2015 - 11:11 am

IIRC, it was stated at some point that those tunnels would not be used.

JBS February 26, 2015 - 11:18 am

Those were for the tunnels in Lower Manhattan that were already built. The tunnels in Spanish Harlem are included as part of the plan for Phase 2.

Hank February 26, 2015 - 1:03 pm

Correct, the existing 1970s tunnels on 2nd Ave are already being used for the tail tracks of the 96th Street Station. They will also be used for Phase II, meaning that (along with a little cut and cover) the only part of Phase II currently slated for tunnel boring is the curve westward at 125th street

Larry Littlefield February 26, 2015 - 3:02 pm

Right, and although I understand why the terminal/transfer station at 125th Street would be expensive, I don’t get why Phase II (originally the rest of Phase I before Sheldon Silver intervened) would cost so damn much.

Henry February 26, 2015 - 11:22 pm

Property acquisition costs? It’s no secret that Manhattan property has been more and more expensive over the years, and the SAS Phase I included stuff like ventilation buildings and ancillary entrances that would require acquiring land. Older subways don’t have ventilation shafts at all, or have them very sparingly in favor of street grates.

Nathanael March 1, 2015 - 5:03 am

Also, that turn to 125th St is shockingly expensive. 😛

Phase II should be subphased. 106th St. could be built right now.

al March 2, 2015 - 11:24 am

A 3 block 106th st station and 2 block connector would fit the gap between 105th St and 110th St. A 116 St station would entail a conversion like 23rd-Ely in Queens. Not impossible, but might be trickier as the 70’s era plan for the SAS didn’t include a 116th St station, and didn’t build the tunnel segment around that area for a station.

al March 2, 2015 - 1:22 pm

It has to do with a design that doesn’t disturb preexisting MNCR and Lex Ave service during excavation and construction. The current plan for Phase 2 also requires another Launch Box between 105th St and 110th St. It calls for sending TBMs north under the existing 110th St – 119th st tunnels. They haven’t learned a damn thing from the WTC PATH Terminal and New South Ferry fiascos.

For $4 billion, they should complete the 105 st-110 st gap as a station and connector tunnel. Either turn 116th st segments into another station (ala 23rd-Ely in Queens) or build a station/launch box for a mole at 120 st to cross the Harlem river to get to The Hub in the Bronx.

Bronx February 27, 2015 - 1:15 am

Considering that a large portion of the phase 2 tunneling is complete, will it likely be finished in a shorter period of time than phase 1? If so, any guesses?

adirondacker12800 February 27, 2015 - 1:27 am

It depends on how long it takes to settle the 1755 lawsuits and their appeals.

Larry Littlefield February 26, 2015 - 9:05 am

“The subways are more crowded that ever, and to keep up with demand, the system has to be able to sustain more frequent service in more areas. With the billions of dollars requested, the alternative is a scary one indeed.”

Not if you have a parking placard, drive and park on the street for free.

“On the east side, projects above 96th Street don’t get much traction or love from Albany or City Hall.”

However, this one would allow doctors who live in Westchester to take MetroNorth to 125th and then the subway to Upper East Side hospitals along the river. Of course perhaps they’d rather drive.

“For a period of time, maybe a year or two, we’re O.K.,” Mr. Prendergast said after a board meeting. “But as you start to get down that path, we get to the point where if we don’t have money we can’t award design contracts, we can’t award construction projects.”

So does that mean the $600 million in “reimbursable” operating expenses would suddenly become just operating expenses, paid for rather than borrowed for?

Larry Littlefield February 26, 2015 - 11:31 am

“The Mayor went to Albany and did a great imitation of the pot calling the kettle black.”

BTW, back when I wrote a series on MTA finances last spring I said exactly what the city should do about funding the MTA. Take over the surface transportation system.


At a net cost, with the city also receiving the current MTA Payroll tax revenues collected within its borders, of $800 million. And the MTA saving that much money. About as much money as it the city once provided to the MTA Capital Plan, adjusted for inflation.

Henry February 26, 2015 - 2:17 pm

You’d have to figure out revenue-sharing Metrocard transfers though. Granted, we probably have agreements like that in place with NICE and Bee-Line, but I imagine the numerous bus-subway connections made every day would make the problem an order of magnitude harder.

Larry Littlefield February 26, 2015 - 3:01 pm

That’s easy. Because I’ve said the MTA subway and rail operations should cover their costs on an auto-equivalent basis


whereas the bus system is subsidized, and in joint trips most of the distance would be on the subway, the revenues from multi-mode trips would be 80 percent subway, and 20 percent bus.

I’d say 100 percent subway, but I’d like to maintain an MTA incentive to develop bicycle parking facilities at the ends of transit lines, such as those in other countries.

Eric F February 26, 2015 - 3:18 pm

The best advertisement for Phase 2 will be getting Phase 1 done by the current scheduled deadline and having it run well. A solidly performing line during 2017 will build momentum to extend the thing north. I would imagine that you won’t see much impetus to move Phase 2 before Phase 1 is done, but there could be overwhelming pressure to fund and start Phase 2 at that point.

SEAN February 26, 2015 - 4:29 pm

All it will take is some pressure & a contribution from Columbia University to get the line extended.

Rob February 26, 2015 - 7:02 pm

Not sure Columbia has much clout. The Penn Station Access plan (the Bronx stations for the New Haven MetroNorth line) was supposed to include some west side of Manhattan stations for the Hudson MetroNorth line. Columbia is building its new campus adjacent to this station, and since only some platforms, would be far far cheaper than extending a new line. And yet, this part of Penn Station Access disappeared.

AG February 26, 2015 - 8:15 pm

Well since the New Haven Line is so busy – Hell Gate was going to be first. It’s hard enough getting money for one part – let alone 2. Hopefully West Harlem and te West Side get their Penn Station acess as well. I still dot get why they are still using diesel on the Hudson Line above Croton. They need electrification like 20 years ago. I asked a conductor one time while riding up to Poughkeepsie and basically he said the communities up there don’t want it. Believe it or not they are afraid increased and easier access to the city will drive up prices… Considering there are mostly houses up there you would think they would want that… Strange…

Alon Levy March 3, 2015 - 6:34 pm

No part of SAS goes anywhere near Columbia. A 125th Street extension would, and would be precious, but is not formally proposed anywhere.

Brooklynite February 26, 2015 - 5:08 pm

No major expansion projects should be undertaken until the obscene costs of construction are brought under control. $40,000 per inch for SAS I? Really?? (For comparison, that’s about 3-10 times as much as similar projects worldwide.)

Spendmor Wastemor February 26, 2015 - 5:21 pm

Yes, when construction cost figures for a fancy hole in the ground plus some concrete and wiring are more comprehensible as per inch than per mile it is obscene.

John-2 February 26, 2015 - 10:31 pm

If the actually do get around to funding Phase II, I’d like to see the cost breakout between the cut-and-cover section (105th to 110th Streets) and the deep cavern section (120 to 125th-Lex, though there likely will be some C&C from 120th to 122nd streets).

They will have to include the first near-surface station on the line, at 116th Street, in the shallow construction work, but the terminal will have to underpin the 4/5/6 at Lex. So whatever the cost is, you’d expect it to be weighted heavily towards the northern quarter-mile of the project (It also will be interesting to see the neighborhood reaction to cut-and-cover, versus the protests that have shown up for the Phase I deep tunnel project. If there isn’t any more protests with the shallow construction than there were with the deep tunnel, the MTA really should consider going back to the 1900-1970 concept of stations near the surface, which are far easier for riders to access).

sonicboy678 February 27, 2015 - 10:35 am

Having stations close to the surface is not always a good thing, especially with mandatory ADA compliance. If you need an example of how it may be bad, then look at Nevins Street.

Bolwerk February 27, 2015 - 11:24 am

Why does that affect ADA compliance? If anything, ADA compliance doesn’t want depth.

Pointlessly deep stations aren’t exactly saving money either.

sonicboy678 February 27, 2015 - 12:28 pm

Maintaining ADA compliance with side platforms is relatively easy; any elevators or ramps can easily be placed to the side without obstructing traffic. The same can’t be said for island platforms. City Hall is wide and does not have high ridership, so it’s relatively easy to have ADA compliance there (the only thing that might serve as a hindrance is the lower level); Nevins Street, on the other hand, is somewhat narrow, has fair ridership, sees many transfers, and is incredibly close to the street. In order to better facilitate people, island platforms must be further underground. This only becomes more important when taking on a task like what SAS is supposed to accomplish.

John-2 February 27, 2015 - 6:54 pm

City Hall on the N/R is kind of an outlier among the stations with island platforms in that it’s both one level below the street and has one of its tracks not within the street’s ROW, as the uptown platform extends into City Hall Park.

Most island platform stations are two levels down and would require either two or three elevators (depending on if it’s a two or four-track station. That’s not much different from shallow side platform stops, which only require one elevator on each side to get down to fare control, if it’s at platform level, or three elevators if it’s a stop like 68th Street on the 6, which is two levels below ground with a shared fare control area).

So in the case of a 116th Street stop on the Q, you’d just be looking at one of those two scenarios, while for non-ADA passengers, the MTA would have the revolutionary option of putting in mostly stairs (!) to get people from the surface to the platforms, instead of the mostly-escalator stops deep cavern stations require (that doesn’t mean they won’t put an escalator in at street level at 116th, only that they can opt for stairs as well and not ask riders to have to climb 60-75 feet to the surface).

sonicboy678 February 27, 2015 - 7:28 pm

I’m saying that shallow island platforms are generally unfavorable to ADA compliance. I basically used City Hall as a sort of contrast to Nevins Street, as both are incredibly shallow in comparison to most stations with island platforms. Unfortunately, because of the differences in construction, the latter is in no position for ADA compliance. At least side platforms have little issue in the same regard, so it’s not so crippling for those.

I have no clue why you decided to drag those without disabilities into the equation, as my concern had nothing to do with them. Sure, they’ll probably abuse the elevators, but the elevators for the disabled can’t be comfortably installed (or installed at all) in shallow island platform-based stations.

Brooklynite February 27, 2015 - 10:01 pm

Very shallow island platforms, like Nevins Street, would obviously not work because it would barely be possible to even have a staircase reaching the platform from the sidewalk. However making it slightly deeper, so a mezzanine would fit, is all that is needed. For instance, if the tracks were approximately on the level of the 4/5 at 86 St, that would accommodate both an elevator and reasonable distances for people using the stairs. Digging underground mansions is not necessary and is one of the many things that is making the SAS cost $1 billion per station.

adirondacker12800 February 27, 2015 - 10:47 pm

A subway station is much bigger. 40 story skyscraper laid on it’s side bigger.

John-2 February 28, 2015 - 9:58 am

Even at an express stop like Penn Station, you’d only need three elevators to work — two from street level to the local platforms’ fare control, and from there one level further down to the fare control for the center express platform, and from there one up to the center express track (albeit this would make express/local transfers a problem for people using the elevators. But they could simply transfer at 42nd Street).

The main point is if Phase II is ever built, the 116th Street station will be the easiest for most people to access because it will follow William Barclay Parsons’ original NYC subway design and keep the platform close to the surface wherever possible — the deeper the platform, the more mechanical devices have to be used to transport passengers, and the more mechanical devices needed as opposed to stairs, the more things can go wrong.

Bolwerk February 28, 2015 - 9:21 am

I see your point about adding compliance to existing stations, but when the initial design includes compliance anyway it’s probably trivial regardless of the configuration.

Rich M February 26, 2015 - 11:07 pm

The infrastructure construction costs in New York State are driven by the Wicks law that requires separate contracts for design and construction and for the agency to act as general contractor. The result is a long drawn out construction schedule and a tremendous duplication of effort. The Authority must contract for a design consultant to provide a complete design and then contract out for the construction of the infrastructure and the subsystems. The contractors, not wanting to take the risk of building to someone elses design, take the design they bid on and use it as the basis for their own final desing that in most cases is perfornmed by the same consultants that did the original one. And all this design work, original and construction contractor must be reviewed and approved by the Authority before it any of it is finalized or approved for construction. And to add to the confusion, the Authority must act as General Contractor and coordinate it all. This is the reason why we have the most expensive subway in the world. Recently when contracts went out for the Tappan Zee bridge replacement, a condition for the use of federal moiney was to use federal Design-Build contract procurement rules that required the over ride of the Wicks law. That act alone resulted in an almost 40% cost savings and an immediate start of construction.

In years past the costs were controlled a lot better since much of the design work was performed directly by the Authority and the construction contracts went out as direct bids for construction with designs provided directly by the TA. In those days the projects were designed to minimize complexity and cost with an emphasis on operational efficiency, effectiveness and speed of construction. This was because funding for major projects up through the 1970s came directly from the city, voter approved bond issues and to some extent the state and people held thier politicians accoutable for how their money was spent. Nowadays, with the feds paying a large part of the bill uith the MTA borrowing the rest on its own the accountability as to how that money is spent is lost. The agency has become a plaything for the politicians. What we ended up with are projects based on outrageously grandious designs generated by the consultants who are more interested in building monuments to their technological prowess and impressing politicians rather than building facilities for transportation that we will actually be able to afford to build, operate and maintain. I believe though that people are beginning to understand that the money is not being spent well. You look at what is happening with the Capital Plan and you have the governor saying is is bloated(he’s right on the comment regardless of the motive), combine that with the less than luke warm reception for its received from the public at large and it seems we may be in for some change.

smartone February 28, 2015 - 11:29 am

thank you for your insights especially on the Wicks Law

This explains why the cost of building a Subway in NYC is so high

Are there any efforts to fix or repeal the Wicks Law?

Larry Littlefield February 28, 2015 - 1:12 pm

I don’t think the MTA is affected by Wicks.

Nathanael March 1, 2015 - 5:06 am

Thank you for your insights into the Wicks Law mess. It sounds like in-house design & engineering would be a lot more efficient than hiring contractors.

Alon Levy March 3, 2015 - 6:36 pm

Madrid separates design and construction contracts as well, and credits its very low construction costs to this practice, on the grounds that a construction team that wasn’t involved in the design would make changes as necessary based on construction difficulties rather than stubbornly sticking to the design no matter what.

Rich M March 4, 2015 - 11:39 pm


Ths situation you describe in Madrid seems to suggest that the construction contractor has an incentive to make changes in the design to make the project move along efficiently. That is not how it works here. The construction contractor gets a contract build to a design and if their design team suggests changes from the original design to address some previously unforseen problem, and the Authority agrees, that’s an extra and that is where the costs go through the roof. Basically the way it’s arranged with separate design and construction contracts its the Authority that assumes the risk for the design and its the contractors responsibility to build to that design. If there are some unforseen conditions that necessitate changes they get paid extra for that and that is one of the areas where costs go through the roof. In a situation where a construction contractor gets a contract to build the design they provided and conditions are found that require changes in that design the contractor eats those costs. The way it works in New York the construction contractor has every incentive to find problems with the design. Not only do they get paid for the changes but for also for the delays in the schedule from the changes!

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