Scenes from inside the Second Ave. Subway and a postmortem on Phase 1By
Since returning from Paris, I’ve been through the Second Ave. Subway twice. On Saturday, I took a ride up there in the snow and snapped a bunch of photos, many of which you see in this post. On Monday, I rode up there with Matt Chaban, and he turned that trip into a story on me and this site for the Village Voice. Each time, I was struck by how this new thing that looks a bit out of place in the New York City just seemed to be another part of our transit network that was just there. Sure, there were some gawkers and subway tourists who rode up to the Upper East Side to check out this new thing, but for so many people, the Second Ave. Subway had, in a week, become routine.
In a way, seeing the Second Ave. Subway — or at least the three stops that make up this new northern end of the Q train — was a very New York moment. We have a reputation to uphold of being utterly nonchalant about everything, and the Second Ave. Subway, this thing that few people expected to become reality and many didn’t even know about or understand in the first place, is one of those things. It’s been open for 11 days, and it’s already just a part of the routine. Hospital workers now take the Q to 72nd St. while Upper East Siders rave about the 11 or 13 minute one-seat rides to Times Square from 86th or 96th Sts. People talk about their 20 minutes of extra sleep per day but treat the space just like a subway stop, albeit one that’s brighter and, for now, cleaner than the rest of the system.
The subway opened with a celebration on New Year’s Eve and the perfunctory back-slapping that comes along with it. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, our state leader who wasn’t around for the bulk of the planning or construction, but who pushed the project to a quasi-on-time opening, took the microphone. “After nearly a century, the Second Avenue Subway is no longer a dream that only a few still believe is possible. Thanks to the dedication and tireless efforts of thousands of great New Yorkers, the stations are open, the trains are running and it is spectacular,” he said during the opening. “With this achievement, we have recaptured the bold ambition that made the Empire State so great, proving that government can still accomplish big things for the people it serves. New Year’s Eve is all about starting anew and I am proud to ring in the New Year on the Second Avenue Subway and welcome a new era in New York where there is no challenge too great, no project too grand, and all is possible once again.”
It’s a bit of hyperbole, but it’s generally well-deserved hyperbole. The city made a monumental blunder in tearing down the Second Ave. elevated before securing funding to build the Second Ave. Subway over 70 years ago, and this month’s opening rights a historic wrong while bringing transit to one of the few areas of Manhattan still starved of it. By the end of the first week, with service running only from 6 a.m. – 10 p.m., the three new stops were already seeing 93,000 rides per day, and that number will grow as more New Yorkers adjust their routines to account for the new line.
Inside, as I’ve mentioned, the stations don’t look like anything New Yorkers are accustomed to seeing in the subway. The caverns are huge with three-block-long mezzanines spanning each station and no columns along the platforms. The stations are deep too, with long escalators and a variety of elevators. In fact, at 72nd St., one entrance is just a series of five elevators that open at street level, and the renovated 63rd St., a key transfer point between the Q and F, is unrecognizable to anyone who recalls the red false wall that dominated that station for decades. Even the dogs seemed to be enjoying the new station.
It’s certainly appropriate to marvel at the station, and the art — Vik Muniz’s Perfect Strangers at 72nd St., Chuck Close’s incredibly detailed mosaics at 86th St. and Sarah Sze’s blueprints at 96th St. — is worth the price of admission alone. But price — or more specifically cost — remains the elephant in the room. On the eve of the opening, Josh Barro explored the insanely high costs of New York City infrastructure, and Ben Fried at Streetsblog wrote a similar assessment of the dollars. Nicole Gelinas too tried to find a reason for the high costs, but the jury is still out what exactly led to a $4.5 billion bill for three new stations and a renovated fourth. Was it the modern environmental and safety regulations? ADA requirements? Overbuilt mezzanines due to deep-bore tunnels because no one wanted to take the political risk of proposing a cut-and-cover construction? Was it labor costs? Was it good old fashioned corruption?
Ultimately, it’s likely a combination of all of those factors, but the costs seem to be getting worse. Phase 2, which really should have begun long before Phase 1 ended, won’t see heavy construction begin for a few years, and already, due potentially to some engineering SNAFUs in the initial assessment of the project, costs may be as high as $6 billion for a section of a subway that runs through tunnels built decades ago. New York City will never meet the demands of a growing town if these costs and the construction timelines aren’t seriously compressed. And while Cuomo and the MTA can take a victory lap, they shouldn’t lose sight of the lessons that need to be learned from this project. They shouldn’t, as Cuomo did, get snippy when reporters ask about the future of the project, and cost controls are a long-term issue that must be resolved.
I asked Cuomo about the timeline for phase 2. "You are unbelievable," he said. Spox says he's just here to meet and greet, not answer q's pic.twitter.com/50wOqW8ar9
— Kate Hinds (@katehinds) December 23, 2016
In the coming days, I’ll have more on the new subway section. In the meantime, though, if you’re not near the Upper East Side, try to find some time to check it out. It won’t look as pristine as it does now, and it’s something new and exciting for the New York City subway that seems far more of a place than the 7 train’s Hudson Yards stop. It is, after all these years, the Second Ave. Subway in the flesh.