Later this week, when I head off to France for my honeymoon, I’ll have a second opportunity in as many months to walk through one of the Archer Ave. Line stations in Jamaica. The E train will take me from Midtown Manhattan to Sutphin Boulevard on a schleppy ride that woulda-coudla-shoulda been faster had the Super Express plan every materialized, and I’ll head off to the AirTrain by strolling through a station that opened in late 1988 but somehow, less than three decades later, looks post-Apocalyptic. Somehow, we’re okay with ushering tourists into the New York City Subway by showcasing a station with water-stained walls, visibly dusty ceiling panels and inadequate exits.
In one sense, the Archer Ave. subway lines is a quirk of history. It was designed to be part of a large-scale ambitious late-1960s system expansion that the city still badly needs. Very few pieces of that plan survived, and the Archer Ave. subway line was one of them — mostly due to the fact that Jamaica residents wanted to get rid of the elevated lines running through their neighborhood. Thus, the then-newly born MTA prioritized Archer Ave., and what opened in 1988 is a sign of the agency’s struggles to build anything on time, on budget and with any sense of aesthetics.
In another sense, though, the Archer Ave. line is a clear sign that history is repeating. By delving into the archives of news coverage surrounding this subway line, we see some very clear patterns emerge. On October 23, 1973, work began on the Archer Ave. line — a three-stop extension of preexisting subway lines — and the MTA expected work to be completed by 1980 or 1981. Initially, the agency held firm on that 1980 projected revenue service date, but by the late 1970s, the date kept slipping. First, the MTA expected to open the line in 1983, and then, as the city struggled with its finances throughout the mid-to-late 1970s, the agency had to push back the opening date to 1985 or 1986.
By the mid-1980s, the MTA and the feds were at odds over construction progress and quality. The federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration temporarily cut off MTA funding for both the 63rd St. tunnel and Archer Ave. extension over concerns related to leakage — a common theme in recent years — and concrete delivery issues. By then, it was clear that the opening for these new projects would be delayed again.
Eventually, the Archer Ave. line opened in late 1988, and no one was impressed. News coverage focused on how Archer Ave. was a tiny part of a larger, unfulfilled plan and one that didn’t solve the region’s transportation issues as it went nowhere. The Times editorial board thought the MTA had overplayed its announcements of new service, and residents told the agency to stop tooting its own horn. Today, these stations are hardly crown jewels of the subway system.
But what can we learn from Archer Ave.? Obviously, the need to invest system-wide in expansion and not just in piece-meal projects should be lesson number one. But lesson number two is that the system should not be starved of money for expansion simply because a project doesn’t open on time. We can look bad and sigh at this history, but when I ride the E to the AirTrain on Wednesday, I won’t really care that Sutphin Boulevard opened in 1988 instead of 1981. That’s ancient history to me and millions of New Yorkers who can enjoy the benefits, albeit limited, of construction from decades past.
All of which is a 600-word parable to get us to today. At both Second Ave. and Hudson Yards, the MTA is struggling to meet deadlines. The 7 line extension is likely to open 20-22 months late, and the MTA is working furiously to fulfill a promise to open Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway by the end of 2016, already years late. Politicians are starting to notice as the delays garner more headlines and lead to grumpy constituents, but their responses are more worrisome than anything else.
While speaking of the Second Ave. Subway last week, Councilman Ben Kallos had words about the neighborhood. “The businesses simply can’t survive, our constituents can’t survive an entire decade of construction,” he said. He’s not wrong, but the unsaid “or else” is more concerning. If no one can survive long construction projects, then any other future subway expansion is doomed. The MTA can’t use cut-and-cover construction so capital expansion efforts will require years of work. The 8 or 10 years on the East Side is less than the 15 it took to build Archer Avenue, and that just might be part of the cost of an expanded subway system.
At Hudson Yards, where relatively few people have felt the direct effect of construction, Councilman Corey Johnson essentially threatened future funding. “It doesn’t inspire confidence of the city putting money into these projects if they’re not going to get done in time,” he said to NY1. Johnson’s comments underscore how politicians view capital projects not as long-term benefits but as ribbon-cutting opportunities. Here, the subtext is that if those who find funds aren’t in office to enjoy the headlines, they won’t deliver, future growth of the city be damned.
I’ve said this before, but ultimately, the opening date of these projects doesn’t matter in the long run. In the short run, the city and MTA should better respond to concerns of residents and businesses suffering from the effects of life in a 10-year construction zone. But in the long term, the city should continue to fund growth. In 28 years, much like I won’t care on Wednesday about when Archer Ave. opened in the 1980s, no one on the Upper East Side will care that the first stops under Second Ave. opened a few months or a year later than expected. Starving our future over that delay is particularly short-sighted at a time when no one is leading on transit growth.