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A T for (Phase) Two

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Over the last seven years, two questions from readers appear most often in my inbox. Once involves the Q train. What will happen, Queens residents wonder, when Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway opens and the Q heads to the Upper East Side instead of Astoria? The MTA hasn’t said yet what their plans are for the routing, but I’ve long believed that the W will return to service in some form. Astoria won’t lose train service, and we’ll probably see some trains terminate at Whitehall and some cross the Manhattan Bridge from both lines.

The second question always concerns future phases of the subway line. Now that we’re a little over three years away from the official launch of a subway line that’s been in the planning stages since the waning days of World War I, everyone wants to know what’s next. Will the MTA build out Phase 2? When will the subway reach Hanover Square and the South St. Seaport? What about extensions in the Bronx or Brooklyn or a spur across 125th St. in Manhattan?

Current MTA head Tom Prendergast said he hopes the full line is finished by 2035 — which would be close to the 100th anniversary of the start of construction — but odds are good he won’t be in the job that long. So what is next? Recently, Dana Rubinstein, Capital New York’s transit reporter, called me with exactly those queries. She was working on a longer piece about the future of the Second Ave. Subway and asked all the right questions about the project’s future. The piece hit the Internet on Wednesday evening and contains some juicy bits for those keeping a close eye on the Second Ave. sagas.

First up is a brief tidbit about the MTA’s future plans. As I’ve noted before, the next phases of the Second Ave. Subway have been noticeably absent from the agency’s latest round of planning documents. The full line gets a mention in the 20-Year Needs Assessment, but the capital planning has focused around behind-the-scenes state-of-good-repair work. Still, that doesn’t mean the MTA isn’t at least thinking about the future subway.

MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg told Rubinstein that the agency will “update the environmental impact statement in order to do Phase II, because it was done years ago and we want to make sure that all of the conditions still apply.” Lisberg doesn’t know when this update will happen, but it’s something that the MTA should consider starting soon. The FEIS was published in May of 2004, and most of the work for that document had been completed over the previous five years. At least, the MTA will have to issue a Statement of No Change will supporting materials. (For what it’s worth, Lisberg also said that Phase 2 doesn’t necessarily have to come next, but considering the practical connection Phase 2 offers at 125th St. and the engineering complexities of Phases 3 and 4, I’d bet real money that Phase 2 will be next.)

Beyond that, though, there are some very practical reasons to continue construction, and these reasons cast doubt on the wisdom of the current phased approach. Rubinstein writes:

At a recent breakfast, I asked Tom Prendergast, the authority’s new chairman, whether funding for the Second Avenue Subway Phase II would be in that capital plan. “Yes, I think one of the things that we need to be able to do is for the system expansion projects, either complete them or continue on the road to completion,” he said. “If you take a look at the fact that the original bond issue for the Second Avenue Subway was 1936, you know, it would be nice to be able to get that project done within 100 years of when it was first thought of.”

…Advocates argue, optimistically, that the next phase ought to begin as soon as the first one is completed so as to avoid having to re-alienate the neighborhoods the subway will be serving. “If everyone goes home, you have to destruct the area all over again,” said [the RPA’s Richard] Barone. “It takes years to start all over again.”

There are other reasons to believe that starting up again, once the construction has stopped, is a good idea. “What is more of a factor is keeping the project staff in place” who have built up the necessary expertise to build a subway through a very dense part of Manhattan, according to Lisberg.

For the MTA, the phased approach has proven costly because the agency is going to have to build out another launch box and reengage tunnel boring machines. That’s the bargain they made with Sheldon Silver though to get Phase 1 started. Losing the institutional memory and the infrastructure to build a subway system would be even more costly.

In speaking with Rubinstein, I thought that a 50-50 chance of Phase 2 starting soon after Phase 1 was optimistic, and I’ll stand by that assessment. Rep. Carolyn Maloney has made some noises about continuing the project, but until the grants are in place and the studies are completed, construction will dry up when Phase 1 is finished. Will the Second Ave. Subway be anything more than a stub or can Manhattan finally, after a century, get the subway line it needs?

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Scenes from inside the Second Ave. Subway and a postmortem on Phase 1

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Crowds exit the Second Ave. Subway's 86th St. stop on Saturday afternoon. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Crowds exit the Second Ave. Subway’s 86th St. stop on Saturday afternoon. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

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 view of the tracks from the mezzanine at 72nd Street. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

The view of the tracks from the mezzanine at 72nd Street. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

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.

Straphangers at 72nd St. have been enjoying the art at the new stations. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Straphangers at 72nd St. have been enjoying the art at the new stations. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

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.

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.

A Second Ave. Subway-themed newsstand on the platform level at 96th St. sat empty and shuttered on Saturday. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

A Second Ave. Subway-themed newsstand on the platform level at 96th St. sat empty and shuttered on Saturday. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

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With SAS Phase 1 opening on deck, the three questions to ask

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo stopped by the 86th St. station over the weekend to check out progress on the Second Ave. Subway as the project's opening date nears. (Photo via Gov. Andrew Cuomo on flickr)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo stopped by the 86th St. station over the weekend to check out progress on the Second Ave. Subway as the project’s opening date nears. (Photo via Gov. Andrew Cuomo on flickr)

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.

* * *

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.

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Third time’s the charm: MTA re-re-releases Capital Plan with money for SAS Phase 2

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Planning and preliminary construction for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway, shown here in blue, will be a part of the MTA’s 2015-2019 capital plan.

In some reality, the MTA’s recent five-year capital began nearly 16 months ago at the start of 2015, and we are well into year two of the work. In our reality, Gov. Andrew Cuomo still hasn’t really funded the plan, and the five-year spending proposal hasn’t gone through the state approval process. Yet, on Wednesday, for the third time in two years, the MTA released a draft of the capital program. The agency thinks this one will finally garner Capital Program Review Board sign-off, and in it are plans to begin in earnest Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway.

This element of the capital plan — the northern extension of the Second Ave. Subway to Lexington and East 125th St. — is not without controversy. In August of 2014, when the MTA first put forward this five-year plan, the funding request for Phase 2 was $1.5 billion, and the MTA expected to begin construction in 2019. As Cuomo dragged his feet, though, the MTA had to revise the plan, and an October 2015 version included only $500 million for preliminary design and engineering work. The MTA said it couldn’t start work before the end of 2019 and planned to request the balance in the 2020-2024 plan. East Harlem pols were not happy, and politicians began a push to examine construction timelines (albeit one that came far too late).

When the state finally approved a budget a few weeks ago, Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway was back on the table, and the MTA has released the third version of their 2015-2019 capital plan that reflects this expenditure (pdf). All told, the MTA will spend around $1.035 billion on Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway, with approximately $500 million coming from the feds. The plan is a bit of a hedge as heavy construction won’t begin until 2019, and if the MTA misses that deadline, as the agency expected to six months ago, they can roll the money over into 2020 while lining up the rest of the funding to begin work on that phase.

If all goes according to plan, the MTA will spend around $535 million on environmental, design, and real estate and project support in order to begin utility relocation work for Phase 2. The new plan also, in the MTA’s words, “reserves $500 million to support progressing major construction activities.” This is a promise to maybe kinda sorta begin real work on Phase 2 by the end of 2019 with an eye toward ramping up construction activity through funds available in the next capital plan. (What happens if the next capital plan takes years to approve is an open question.) While the proposal allows for modest expenditures spread out over four calendar years, the reserve is all bucketed for 2019. Do you think major construction will start by then? I’m not convinced.

Meanwhile, at Wednesday’s board meeting, MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast echoed MTA Capital Construction President Michael Horodniceanu’s off-the-cuff cost estimate from early November. The agency still expects Phase 2 to cost between $5-$6 billion, an exceedingly hight amount even in New York City. Most of the costs seem tied up in the 125th St. station which involves tunneling underneath Metro-North tracks and the Lexington Ave. Subway while building a deep-bore subway stop that’s up to modern safety codes. It’s still not yet clear if the MTA intends to utilize pre-existing tunnel segments north of 96th St. that may be too close to the surface to support the MTA’s current approach to subway construction. We’ll know definitively one way or another within the next year or so.

And thus, this never-ending saga inches closer to another phase. One day, we may even have a full length Second Ave. Subway, but as the tenth anniversary of construction on Phase 1 nears, it’s still going to be a while.


What it means for the MTA to ‘fast-track’ Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway

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The MTA is working to “fast-track” Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway, the norther extension shown here in blue.

With Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway set to wrap later this year, in an ideal world, Phase 2 would be well under way now. The original proposal for the line contemplated a far more compressed construction schedule with work on multiple phases at the same time. There is no reason, for instance, other than money, why Phases 2 and 3 can’t begin concurrently. Yet, here we are, near the end of Phase 1, and the most exciting news is word that the MTA is going to follow through with its promises to “fast track” Phase 2.

The latest development came on Friday, but first let’s recap. When the MTA unveiled the 2015-2019 capital plan, the proposal included $1.5 billion for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway with the promise that actual construction would begin toward the end of the five years. Then, late last year, thanks to delays in approval, the MTA chopped $1 billion from the SAS proposal, and New Yorkers were upset. The MTA later promised to accelerate Phase 2 if possible.

Meanwhile, the MTA’s five-year capital plan still remains unfunded thanks in large part to smoke-and-mirrors accounting on the part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (more on that issue later this week), but the MTA is forging ahead with Phase 2 acceleration efforts. On Friday, the agency released two procurement documents that will usher in design and engineering work for Phase 2 [pdf] as well as operations for a community center for Harlem segment of this new subway line [pdf]. Much of the work will involve refreshing the environmental impact statement and planning and finalizing design options for subsequent bids. It’s all fairly modest as work goes but a very necessary first step in moving forward.

In announcing this new work, the MTA reiterated its commitment to Phase 2 and projected awarding these contracts over the summer. “Our goal is to fast-track Phase 2 to every extent possible, and if these efforts to speed up the project timetable are successful, the MTA will amend our Capital Program and seek additional funds to begin heavy construction sooner,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast, echoing comments he made earlier in the week in Albany. “With the opening of first phase of the Second Avenue Subway planned for the end of this year, we are taking steps to ensure a seamless transition to the next phase of work ahead.”

I’m glad to see the MTA’s commitment to this important section of the plan survive. The plan calls for new stations at East 106th and 116th Sts. and 2nd Ave. along with a curve west to a connection with the Lexington Ave. IRT at 125th St. and tail tracks to 129th St. that could one day serve the Bronx. It’s perhaps the most vital part of the Second Ave. Subway, but it’s still a long way off.

The MTA doesn’t, as I mentioned, have an approved capital plan yet, and the agency doesn’t have the money to spend on these awards yet. They’re also still the same agency that has trouble meeting deadlines and builds projects that are exponentially more expensive than similar work the world over. If this phase is going to cost $5.5-$6 billion, as MTA Capital Construction President Michael Horodniceanu predicted in November, we have bigger problems to worry about than whether construction will begin in early 2019 or early 2020.

But either way, this project will lumber forward, and perhaps, we’ll have half of the Second Ave. Subway before the 100th anniversary of the original proposal to build a subway underneath that part of the East Side.

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An unclear future for Phase II of the Second Ave. Subway

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Late last week, a bunch of politicians gathered on the Upper East Side to celebrate the ongoing progress toward completion for Phase I of the Second Ave. Subway. At the time, the project was approximately 960 days away from revenue service, and after nine decades, everyone’s feeling pretty good. “For years, people have been asking me if they will live long enough to ride the 2nd Ave subway. Usually I’ve had to respond that it depends on your age,” State Senator Liz Krueger said, “but now I finally feel we can say with confidence, ‘Get ready: We will soon have a new subway to ride.’”

It would, obviously enough, be a good time to think about starting the funding push, let alone the work, for Phase II. The second part of this multi-step project is a northern extension from 96th St., through preexisting tunnel and some new stations to a connection to the 4/5/6 and Metro-North underneath 125th St. It was initially estimated to cost around the same as Phase I, as the station caverns and auxiliary structures drive the expense, and it’s a key element to the East Harlem transportation picture.

It is then a bit concerning to hear the MTA be a bit non-committal as the deadline for funding for the next capital program looms. In the past, the agency has noted that, while the EIS will be updated, the project is still an important one, and powerful politicians have urged the MTA to keep building. Still, MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendgast said this week, as amNY reports, “it’s too early to tell what will and won’t be included” in the next five-year plan.

The MTA has to shift its focus to climate change-related work to shore up the system in the event of another Sandy-type flood event, but the Second Ave. Subway is an important element of any plan to improve mobility and reduce NYC’s dependency on car travel. The MTA shouldn’t wait until 2016, when everyone is celebrating the ribbon cutting for the Second Ave. Subway, to start planning for Phases II (or III or IV). The time to act is now, and politicians and agency officials should do what they can to move this behemoth forward.

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The growing NYC population and the stagnant transit network

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While I was up in Montreal two weeks ago, this short article from The Times slipped past my radar. The details in it seem a bit unprecise, as New York City’s population has been on an upward trajectory for longer than the piece notes, but the overall point remains: New York City’s population is at 8.4 million, an all-time high, and is showing no signs of slowing or declining.

Here’s the story. I’ll get to why it’s important after.

Despite the challenges of city living, the city’s population is growing in ways not seen in decades. For the third consecutive year, New York City last year gained more people than it lost through migration, reversing a trend that stretched to the mid-20th century.

For the year ending July 1, 2013, an influx of foreigners combined with a continuing decline in the loss of migrants to other states increased the population by more than 61,000, nudging it past 8.4 million for the first time, according to estimates to be released on Thursday by the United States Census Bureau.

Every borough registered a gain in population. Even the Bronx, a traditional laggard, recorded a rate nearly as high as top-ranked Brooklyn and Manhattan. While Manhattan and the Bronx lost more people to migration than they gained, the difference was made up by more births than deaths…Joseph J. Salvo, director of the population division for the Department of City Planning, estimated that the number of New Yorkers had grown by 2.8 percent since 2010.

So here’s my loaded question with a very obvious answer: If the number of New Yorkers has grown by 2.8 percent over the past four years, has our transit network kept pace? Of course not. In 2010, as you may recall, the MTA slashed subway and bus service across the board, and while some of it has come back, much hasn’t. Service levels remain barely adequate to meet current demand, and rush hour trains are generally unpleasantly crowded with no leeway for error.

Going forward, there aren’t clear indications the MTA will be able to meet population demands through the current system. Yes, Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway will open in 32 months or so, and yes, the 7 line extension will, eventually this year, debut. But after that, the abyss of no transit expansion projects awaits. Phase 2 of SAS is but an idea on paper with no money behind it, and forget about much-needed Outer Borough expansions beyond Flushing, to Little Neck or even down Nostrand or Utica Ave. where much of the population growth is occurring.

What happens, then, as the city’s population grows but the subway system can’t keep pace? Already, the transit community is concerned about what the Domino Sugar Factory development in Brooklyn will mean for an L train that can’t handle current demand. The 7 train stations in Long Island City can’t handle more inbound traffic, but buildings continue to climb. Meanwhile, the South Bronx seems primed for a renaissance that will further tax the Lexington Ave. IRT just as the Second Ave. Subway opens. Ridership meanwhile reached a 65-year high as these new New Yorkers are generally using the subway system on a daily basis.

There’s no real easy answer here. The bus network will have to become more frequent and more reliable. The city will be forced to explore congestion pricing both as a means of controlling traffic and funding transit. And the pace of expansion may need to pick up. Eventually, without some forward thinking and plans for the future, New York’s growth will be constrained by the capacity of its transit system and its road network. We may be reaching that point sooner than anyone would like.

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Transit Wireless readies Queens-focused Phase 2

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The iPhone reigns supreme underground. (Via Transit Wireless)

The iPhone reigns supreme underground. (Via Transit Wireless)

While waiting for the Q train at Times Square on Wednesday night, I pulled out my phone and hopped on the station’s free wireless network. I could have used Verizon’s LTE service three flights underground, but the wireless seems faster and doesn’t whittle away at my data plan. After a few minutes, the train pulled in, and I wrapped up my emails and Tweets.

For New Yorkers, an underground wireless network and subway cell service is a new development. After fits and starts, the MTA and Transit Wireless has gotten the latest program off the ground, and with service in place at around 40 stations, within the next handful of years, all 277 underground will enjoy the luxury of subway cell service. Wiring the tunnels is a long way off, but things are moving apace.

Yesterday, Transit Wireless offered more details on its Phase 2 rollout. While more Manhattan stations will enjoy the service, Phase 2 is newsworthy because it hops a river. Most of the stations in the next round are in Queens. The next base station will be locating in Queens, and officials trumped the next phase.

“Hundreds of millions of new annual subway patrons will soon receive the benefits of having all the major wireless carriers AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and Wi-Fi service in underground stations – including Queens,” William A. Bayne Jr., CEO of Transit Wireless said. “We are not only extending our network to all underground stations in Queens and additional stations in Manhattan; we are setting the stage for future innovations that will provide riders with an enhanced experience in the New York City subway system.”

I don’t have the full list of Queens stations, but Transit Wireless notes that Phase 2 will encompass 11 midtown subway stops, including Herald Square and Grand Central, and 29 Queens stations. The next full set of 40 will be online by June, but eagle-eyed observers will note that some of the Phase 2 stations such as Bryant Park are already wired. “The MTA’s firm commitment to bringing our transit system into the 21st Century continues to bear fruit with new technology that will improve our customers’ daily commutes,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said in a statement. “Providing cell phone and data connectivity to our Queens customers is the latest step in keeping everyone connected and bringing a new level of security with the ability to dial 911 in an emergency.”

Meanwhile, Transit Wireless has released a new infographic detailing usage in 2013. While only 40 stations were online, the company saw 2.6 million Wifi connections and transmitted over 60 terabytes of data. iPhones were the top device, and a plurality of users were, unsurprisingly, between the ages of 25-34. Only 8 percent of users were 55 or over — which explains why that generation is so skeptical of the utility of BusTime as well. Times Square and Columbus Circle were the most popular stations of the 36 measured.

Ultimately, the expansion of wifi is a great development for the city. It makes waiting for trains more tolerable and allows passengers to get more information about train service while inside the system. The phone calls haven’t been disruptive, and outside of a few isolated texting incidents, straphangers have remained focused on their surroundings. The tunnels should be wired too, but that seems to be a project for a different time. Make of that what you will.

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Maloney, Silver urge forward progress on SAS Phase 2

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Pressure from certain realms of New York City politics to keep moving forward on the Second Ave. Subway has grown stronger over the past few weeks as Representative Carolyn Maloney has trained her attention on Phase 2 of the project. After drawing out some words from the MTA on the fate of the project, she and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver have penned a letter to MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast. Maloney could be emerging as the champion who can keep this capital construction effort moving forward.

The letter to Prendergast is a continuation of the latest dialogue between the two sides. Maloney and Silver acknowledge the MTA’s update as the agency reaffirms the 2004 Final Environmental Impact Statement, and the two are pleased the MTA hopes to discuss funding with the Federal Transit Administration. In the meat of their letter, they hit upon a key point:

We believe those steps need to be done with all due haste in order to ensure that the MTA is moving forward with a seamless transition to the next phase. In our view, it would be much harder to continue construction if there is a significant lag between the two phases. Currently, the MTA has a great team in place that knows the plans, knows the problems and can build on lessons learned during the first phase of Second Avenue Subway construction. If the MTA fails to move forward now, much of that knowledge will be lost as people move on to different projects.

In coming years, the number of people commuting to jobs on the East Side is expected to continue to expand and the need to proceed with construction of the subway grows critical, particularly in Midtown. Furthermore, East Side Access is expected to add riders to the already overcrowded Lexington Avenue line. These two changes make it more important than ever to quickly begin Phase 2 of the Second Avenue Subway. The closer we get to the next phase, the closer we come to fully realizing the vision for the entire project, which is so urgently needed throughout the East Side, including Lower Manhattan. We look forward to learning more about your plans for the Second Avenue Subway, including the timetable for your study, any changes that you expect to make, any difficulties you currently foresee and the timetable for your negotiation of the full funding grant agreement. We want to reiterate our strong support for this project and our willingness to work with you to make sure the project moves forward as quickly as practicable.

Maloney’s office assures me as well that the Congresswoman plans to continue to push for progress on Phase 2 and will be staying involved in the process, however it shapes up to be. The MTA meanwhile will soon put forth plans for its next capital campaign, and the push is on to include initial funding for SAS Phase 2. It would indeed be a shame lose the forward momentum generated by Phase 1, and there’s no reason why Phase 2 discussions shouldn’t begin now.

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Carolyn Maloney and the Second Ave. Phase II Sagas

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Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway project extends the route north to 125th St. and west to Lexington Ave.

In last night’s post, I delved into Rep. Carolyn Maloney’s Second Ave. Subway report card and issued a call for someone to take on the mantle of championing Phase II of the four-part project. Maloney and her office took exception to my angle, and yesterday, I’ve learned that Phase II may be inching closer toward a reality than we previous knew. Perhaps, it has one of its funding champions already in place.

In response to my article, Maloney issued the following statement:

“I appreciate your attention to my report on the Second Avenue Subway; however, you are mistaken to suggest that I am not paying attention to the need to move seamlessly from Phase I to Phase II. I sent a letter on June 11, 2013 requesting information about what the MTA is doing to plan for Phase II. They responded to me on June 21, 2013 confirming their commitment to moving seamlessly to Phase II. On June 21, 2013, I met with then Acting Chairman of the Board Fernando Ferrer and others regarding the need to move to Phase II. And, my report makes clear that the next report will take a closer look at what the MTA is doing to plan for Phase II.”

I’ve had the opportunity to view Maloney’s letter and current MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast’s reply. It bodes well for the future of the project. “With completion of Phase I in sight,” Maloney wrote, “it is time to turn our attention to Phase II. I want to make sure the MTA is beginning to put together its funding so that it can begin to build Phase II as soon as Phase I is completed. I would like to see a seamless transition between the first and second phases of the project.”

Maloney went on to ask the questions she should be asking. Has the MTA approached the Federal Transit Administration for funding assistance? What requests for Phase II money will be in the 2015-2019 capital plan? What design work, if any, is required before the MTA can execute a full funding grant agreement with the feds?

In a response, the MTA pledged to Maloney that it also is “working toward a seamless transition from Phase 1 to Phase 2.” This is, as far as I can tell, the first real recognition from the agency that it should and will be looking to expand the Second Ave. Subway at least as north as 125th St. While the Phase 2 price tag is similar to that of Phase 1, the work is easier. Much of the tunnel segments exist, and the engineering challenges that the project faces south of 63rd St. do not exist.

Prendergast updated Maloney on the progress of Phase 2 planning. “Currently,” he wrote, “the MTA is in the process of reconfirming the Phase 2 alignment that was included in the 2004 Final Environmental Impact Statement and included in the Record of Decision. This analysis, which considers lessons learned in constructing Phase 1 as well as changes to land use and population that may have occurred since 2004, will help us determine whether additional environmental review is needed and also will inform the Phase 2 cost estimate. Once we have a better understand of what, if any, changes will be needed from the project evaluated in the FEIS, we will begin more in depth discussions with the Federal Transit Administration.”

The MTA, Prendergast said, will reveal further plans for the Second Ave. Subway when it finalizes its Twenty-Year Needs Assessment later this fall. It is likely that the twenty-year plan will include the full Second Ave. line from the Seaport to 125th St., but Phase 2 — north from 96th St. to East Harlem — could begin in the earlier part of that two-decade window.

We could debate the relative merits of breaking up the Second Ave. Subway project into phases for hours. It is a move that likely will see costs exceed what they should have been, but it was also a move that allowed Phase 1 to move forward. Will that initial section essentially on auto-pilot, MTA planners should be moving forward on Phase 2, and if Maloney, a representative from the area who has come to recognize the subway’s benefits, can serve as a prod and champion, so much the better.

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