A few weeks ago, when a flight deal landed on my lap, I booked a New Year’s Eve trip to Paris. I didn’t really consider the opening of the 2nd Ave. Subway in my decision. After all, flight deals are flight deals, and vacations are vacations. Now, though, after ten years of running this site, I might miss the opening of the 2nd Ave. Subway.
According to materials released Monday by the MTA and statements made at Board committee meetings by Tom Prendergast, the MTA is “cautiously optimistic” that Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway will open before the end of the year. This announcement follows some behind-the-scenes pressure by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a few well-publicized photo ops at the construction site over the past few days. Still, with 18 days left and a few key tests remaining, time is not on the MTA’s side.
That said, time may be immaterial. The MTA expects to complete some key HVAC tests by December 23 and communications systems tests by Christmas Eve. If these go as expected, the agency could open this long-awaited subway line at any point between Christmas and New Year’s. For the first time, the agency’s independent engineering consultant admits that the MTA “is on track to finish all required tests before the end of December.”
So the Second Ave. Subway will open and soon. We won’t sit through some 20-month delay due to fire safety systems and steep escalators as we did with the 7 line. We won’t have a gap issue as we did at the new South Ferry station. We will have a new subway, whether its on December 30, as many sources have indicated or a few days earlier or later. But while everyone has focused on the opening date for the Second Ave. Subway, it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter because the subway will open amidst some deep-seated questions and concerns regarding the project’s past and the project’s future.
So what should we talk about instead? Submitted for your approval:
1. Why does the MTA consider this project to be “on time”?
When the MTA broke ground on Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway, it was supposed to open in late 2013, but every six months, the agency pushed back the completion date by another year. Finally, in 2009, the MTA had a “reset” in which they baselined work and a project timeline to announce a 2016 date. It’s going to take the MTA 365 of 2016’s 366 days to open this thing, but it seems that it will open. But why did it take nearly 10 years to build under three miles of subway and just three new stations? What has the MTA learned to speed up construction and improve capital construction performance in the future?
2. Why did Phase 1 cost so much?
Similar to the timeline, this project was beset by cost concerns. It is the most expensive subway, on a per-kilometer basis, anywhere in the world. (The runner up was the 7 line extension.) It was originally supposed to cost $3.8 billion and will end up costing around $4.45 billion. Meanwhile, last year, MTA Capital Construction Michael Horodniceanu said Phase 2 might cost between $5-$6 billion. Admittedly, it’s a tougher project from an engineering perspective that has to loop underneath both the Lexington Ave. Subway and the elevated Metro-North tracks at 125th St., but that price tag would set world records in a very bad way.
Any post mortem the MTA conducts on this project should try to assess why it was so expensive, why costs increased by 20 percent over the span of a few years and how future phases can be delivered at a lower cost more in line with global standards (rather than at higher costs that far exceed anything reasonable). Not conducting this analysis is tantamount to malpractice.
3. Why hasn’t the MTA started work on Phase 2 yet?
According to the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the project, Phase 2 (and maybe Phase 3 as well) were supposed to begin before Phase 1 wrapped. That way, the MTA could constantly be constructing parts of the Second Ave. Subway in an effort to finish the project in a time fashion (rather than in 40 years at the current rate). Instead, in part due to a funding crisis, the MTA hasn’t even secured full funding for Phase 2. Rather, the latest capital plan included around $1.5 billion for the project with design work and a refreshed environmental assessment set to be delivered next year. Construction won’t begin in earnest until late 2019.
So why didn’t the MTA adhere to the original plan of parallel construction tracks? And how much of the Second Ave. Subway should expect to see within the next decade or two? It shouldn’t take decades to expand the subway, but that’s the MTA’s current timeframe.
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Ultimately, this project will debut to the usual ribbon-cutting fanfare, whether I’m in New York City to see it or in Paris to miss it. The Upper East Side will have its subway line (albeit with lengthy headways that may come as a surprise). But what comes next is just as important, and right now, it will be a few years of lost opportunities until whatever is next arrives.