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.
So anything big happen when I was gone?
After a New Year’s trip to Paris, I arrived back to a New York City with a brand new part of a subway as the Second Ave. Subway opened to the public on January 1. I was skeptical the agency would be able to hit its target date, but under extreme pressure from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the four-stop extension of the Q train arrived with champagne and a party on New Year’s Eve. Already, Upper East Side residents who now live a ten-minute one-seat subway ride away from Times Square have been raving about the new service, and I’ll have more details, thoughts and photos from the Phase 1 subway stops later this week. But first the news.
As the first part of the Second Ave. Subway has opened, current MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast has said he will step down from his position and retire from public service within the next few weeks or months. Prendergast has been in charge of the MTA since June of 2013 when he was elevated from his job as President of New York City Transit when Joe Lhota stepped down to run for mayor, and Prendergast was recently confirmed to a term set to run through 2021.
“Opening the Second Avenue Subway [last] weekend was a crowning achievement for the MTA and I’m proud to have been a part of such a historic moment. It has not only changed the daily commute for hundreds of thousands of customers, it has helped change the face of the MTA – showing the public we can meet the deadlines we set for ourselves,” Prendergast said in a statement. “It’s never easy to leave an organization after 25 years of service, but I do so knowing that the MTA will continue to serve the public so well and that our Governor will ensure New York continues to have the most robust transportation system in the country.”
While Prendergast will serve just shy of four years as MTA head, his departure continues a recent trend in turnover atop the MTA. Not counting interim agency leaders, Prednergast’s eventually replacement will be the MTA’s fifth chairman since the end of Peter Kalikow’s term in late 2007. As a comparison, the agency had only five chairmen from its founding in 1968 until the end of Robert Riley’s term in 1991. The turnover has led to shifting priorities and, at times, a lack of direction, but with Prendergast at the helm, the agency had steadied its direction a bit (though the multi-billion-dollar elephant in the room that is the MTA’s capital costs has been largely ignored for years now).
In recent months, Gov. Cuomo had taken a keen interest in MTA goings-on, for better or worse, and with Prendergast’s departure, Cuomo will have an opportunity to further extend his hands-on approach to the MTA. Kenneth Lovett of the Daily News, who broke word of Prendergast’s departure, had an early list of potential replacements. This rogues gallery includes current Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye, NYC Transit President Ronnie Hakim (who could be the first woman in the job), NYS DOT Commissioner Matt Driscoll, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, one-time U.S. Deputy Secretary of Transportation John Porcari, Joe Lhota in a repeat performance, and Cuomo confidantes Rick Cotton or Larry Schwartz, the latter of whom currently sits on the MTA Board.
It’s too early to know for now who will take over for Prendergast or who is even a front-runner, but the list of challenges on hand for the MTA in the coming months and years is substantial. In the short-term, the current TWU contract expires on January 15, and the union is asking for raises and other benefits. Fare hikes are set to go into effect in March, and the agency is knee-deep in planning both Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway and logistics for the upcoming L train shutdown. Meanwhile, the MTA’s cost problem should be front and center for any incoming CEO/Chair.
As Prendergast’s departure nears, I’ll assess his legacy. For now, the MTA heads into another period of change and uncertainty at the top just as work wraps on the agency’s signature project of the past decade. What comes next from Cuomo and from Prendergast’s successor is, for now, a bit of a mystery.
As part of a lengthy rollout of the Second Ave. Subway ahead of its passenger debut on January 1, 2017, the MTA and Gov. Andrew Cuomo are hosting a series of open houses over the next few days. These sessions will allow members of the public to visit the new stations without trains or commuters and check out the work that has plagued the East Side for the better part of the past decade. The 96th Street station opened on Thursday, with cookies, commemorative Metorcards and Vignelli-inspired maps, and on Friday, New Yorkers can journey underground to wander through the new station between 8-10 a.m. and 5-7 p.m.
I had a chance to stop by on Thursday, shortly after Gov. Cuomo’s introductory remarks. He again pledged to open the new subway on Jan. 1, even if it meant “pushing it” from 57th St. This is reminiscent of Michael Bloomberg’s promise in late 2013 to do the same with the 7 train, but this time, the stations and new tracks are ready for a train. The photos I took show a station very reminiscent of the Hudson Yards stop, and this clinical approach seems to be the MTA’s design ethos. There are long platforms and vast mezzanines. The art adds color, but the track walls look blindingly, boringly white.
If you would like to see more, you can check out my Periscope video from the station. I added some commentary while strolling through the new stop. I’ll post more photos here over the next few days as other stations open. If you would like to see more now, check out Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. I’ll have more on the reaction to Phase 1, the costs of Phase 2, and the future of the Second Ave. Subway soon. It’s OK to be cynical about the cost, the time it took to build this part of the line and its modest scope, but don’t forget to celebrate it too. It’s been a long, long, long time coming.
There is a bit of a long-running joke among the New York reporters on the MTA’s press distribution list. Despite Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s odd assertion last year that the MTA is not a state agency, whenever the authority has good news to announce, the press release comes with Cuomo’s stamp of approval. “Governor Cuomo announces new countdown clocks” or “Governor Cuomo announces bus upgrades” or “Governor Cuomo announces LIRR third track.” He never sends out the releases with fare hike information, service changes or other bad news. When it’s convenient, the MTA is his.
On Tuesday, one of my all-time favorite “Governor Cuomo announces…” press releases hit my inbox. Gov. Cuomo, who just two days ago announced a Jan. 1 opening for the Second Ave. Subway, has now announced that the MTA is excitedly replacing every subway map in the system with over 13,600 new maps “featuring the new Second Avenue Subway line.”
Cuomo’s release even included a perfectly Cuomo quote about the new maps. “On every subway car, in every station, and throughout New York, installing these maps means that the Second Avenue Subway is finally here and will be open on time,” Governor Cuomo said. The W train’s return a few weeks ago certainly didn’t merit a press release from the Governor touting new maps.
While I am amused by Cuomo’s press release tactics and it can come off as self-serving at times, there’s a larger lesson than the politics of gaining positive press. When Gov. Cuomo is involved in matters of transit and the MTA, in particular, good things happen and bad things are avoided. In other words, having a strong chief executive willing to take some ownership of transit investments is something New Yorkers fighting for better transit should encourage.
A recent piece in The Times is particularly telling. Last week, Emma Fitzsimmons wrote about Cuomo’s hands-on approach to wrapping up the Second Ave. Subway. Although Cuomo’s fingerprints have become more apparent in recent weeks as the Phase 1 work has neared its finish line, Cuomo’s intense involvement in this project stretches back to 2015 when the MTA and its contractors wanted to delay the opening by a significant amount of time. Fitzsimmons writes:
The notorious Second Avenue subway, nearly a century in the making, is inches from the finish line, and Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, has made it his mission to complete the project by New Year’s Eve. On regular visits to the line’s three new stations, he obsesses over design details and equipment glitches at a surprising level of involvement for a governor, which some critics say seems primarily aimed at promoting his image…
For months, Mr. Cuomo has held weekly meetings at his office with the project’s leadership team to address — and sometimes vent about — the latest issues and concerns. He became more involved about a year and a half ago, he said, when officials at the authority told him they wanted to push back the long-established December 2016 deadline by a year or two. “The meetings are not a love fest,” said Charlie Hall, a construction manager from the engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff who is overseeing the project. “The meetings started because there were issues, and things weren’t getting done. People are challenged in those meetings.”
On an unannounced stop at the 86th Street station a few months ago, Mr. Cuomo was angered to see no one was working on a problematic escalator, Melissa DeRosa, his chief of staff, said. He walked around shouting, “Who is working on the escalator?” until the person appeared, she added.
As Fitzsimmons notes, Cuomo’s critics wonder if this interest is a headline-grab as he positions himself for a 2020 run on the national stage, and on other projects, such as the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, Cuomo has pushed through a key project without identifying funding sources or fully justifying the need for the project. As many have told me, he has a tendency to latch onto projects without consulting with experts as to these project’s utility. (The LaGuardia AirTrain in the wrong direction is the prime example of the pitfalls of Cuomo’s approach.)
Yet, it is undeniable that having a governor who cares can get projects through tough spots. As Fitzsimmons notes, and as I highlighted in the excerpt above, Cuomo’s involvement has been instrumental in getting this project wrapped by the end of 2016. He can push competing forces — a contractor with no incentive to finish, an MTA Capital Construction staff afraid of turning operations over to Transit — to work together for a tight deadline.
So if Cuomo can turn results, the question then becomes how to focus him. How can activists get the Governor’s attention at the start when project scope and priorities are formed? How can transit experts get Cuomo’s ear so he latches onto the right projects at the right time? These aren’t just idle questions; they are important concerns that will affect the future of New York City for years and decades to come. With him projects can survive and perhaps thrive; without him, things seem to linger. Yet, his original ideas often seem frustratingly short-sighted and small in scope and impact. It is the great Cuomo conundrum and one that must be reconciled for future success.
After over 85 years of planning, proposing, building, halting and starting over again, the Second Ave. Subway will make its long-awaited public debut on January 1, 2017, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Monday. As New York’s chief executive has made opening the line by the December 2016 deadline the MTA imposed upon itself in 2009 a major goal, he will lead a ceremonial ride on New Year’s Eve with revenue service starting at noon on New Year’s Day. Yet, as this oft-cursed project can’t simply open without a hitch, the Second Ave. Subway — a northern four-stop extension of the Q — will run only from 6 a.m. – 10 p.m. until 24-7 service begins on Monday, January 9.
“New Yorkers have waited nearly a century to see the promise of the Second Avenue Subway realized, and after unrelenting dedication from thousands of hardworking men and women, the wait is over and the subway will open on December 31,” the governor said in a statement. “The on-time completion of this major, transformative project reaffirms confidence in government competence, increasing capacity on the nation’s busiest subway system, and delivering a new, vital transportation artery to millions of New Yorkers.”
Of course, “on-time completion” is relative. The subway was originally supposed to open in the mid-1930s, and the current project was originally projected to open in late 2012. Phase 1 is also only just a part of an aspirational subway line. Using older tunnels, the Q train will head north from its current terminus at 57th St./7th Ave. with a stop at 63rd St./Lexington (and a transfer to the F) before heading up Second Ave. with stops at 72nd St., 86th St. and 96th St. This isn’t quite yet the T train as that new line won’t arrive until Phase 3, a far-away plan to dig south of 63rd St. underneath 2nd Ave.
Yet, for everything this new extension isn’t, it deserves to be celebrated. It’s (hopefully) the start of an effort to right a mobility wrong that has plagued the East Side since the elevated closed in the 1940s and 1950s and brings much-needed relief to the Lexington Ave. line. MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said, “The Second Avenue Subway is the most significant addition to our system in 50 years and will serve more riders on opening day than Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Boston transit systems combined,” MTA Chairman Tom Prendergast said.
I’m curious to see how this new line works out. It’s bound to be a success, and I see no reason to doubt the MTA’s ridership projections. Yet, a level of mystery surrounds the project. Many New Yorkers who are only casual observers of subway news will be surprised to hear that the T isn’t debuting and that the new extension is only three stops along the Upper East Side. Others will be dismayed to find six- or eight-minute peak-hour headways, by far the longest of any Manhattan trunk line, and stations far deeper underground than New Yorkers are accustomed to. Plus, it is likely to be another decade before Phase 2 — another three stops further north through East Harlem — sees the light of day as construction work isn’t expected to begin on this part until late 2019.
Already, the stations are earning praise for their art installation, and the Governor and his team have been pushing that element of the project as a way to draw attention to something new. After all, even though only only a fraction of the MTA’s construction budgets goes to Arts and Design, a fraction of $4.5 billion is still $4.5 million, a substantial sum for the blank canvas of three new stations and a fourth undergoing complete renovations. Photo recreations, massive mosaics and images of the old 2nd and 3rd Ave. elevated lines will dominate the lengthy mezzanine spaces at these new stations, and an early preview of the art is available here.
So after years and decades and stops and starts and New Yorkers who still won’t believe it until they ride the subway, the Second Ave. Subway will open in 11 days with the public invited for rides in 12. And after ten years of running this site, I won’t be in the city for the opening. I’m spending New Year’s Eve in Paris, and it seems only fitting somehow that the subway will open when I’m out of town. There’s always, if the stars align, Phase Two.
The Second Ave. Subway will open on December 31 with a ceremonial ride, Gov. Andrew Cuomo told NBC 4’s Andrew Siff on Sunday. The three and a half new stations that bring the Q north to 96th St. and 2nd Ave. will open to the public the following day. As the MTA gears up for this monumental opening, focus is shifting to Phase 2 of the project, a northern swing to 125th St. and Lexington. Even though work won’t begin until 2019, city officials want to secure federal funding, and today’s post is a guest submission from Stephen Smith, the voice behind the @MarketUrbanism twitter account on just that topic. The words and sentiments are his, but the message is one I endorse.
Last week, New York politicians held a press conference making a last ditch effort to beseech the Obama administration to fund the second phase of the Second Avenue subway – taking the line from its soon-to-be terminus at 96th Street up to 125th, to meet up with the Lexington Avenue line – before transit-hostile Republicans assume power over all three levers of the federal government in January.
Unfortunately for New York, the biggest enemies of transit won’t be in Washington, but right here in New York. During the press conference, Vincent Barone at amNewYork reported that Rep. Carolyn Maloney put a price tag of $6 billion on the project – an astounding sum of money, so large that the chances of the second phase being built any time seem very remote. The latest estimate directly from the MTA was $5.5 to $6 billion – whether Rep. Maloney misspoke or accidentally broke some news, the numbers are unacceptable and unsustainable, and the MTA and its enablers are doing more to harm the cause of transit in New York than any Tea Partier could possibly dream of.
Some may have hoped that the MTA would learn a lesson from the first phase’s record-breaking costs, but the only thing the agency appears to have learned is that state and federal officials will not stand up to their waste or ever-rising costs.
At just 1.6 miles, with just three new stations, the second phase of the Second Avenue subway would be Planet Earth’s most expensive subway line on a per-mile basis – by far. Clocking in at $3.75 billion a mile, it would blow the first phase’s $2.2 billion per mile cost out of the water. The MTA’s projected construction costs in East Harlem would be literally 10 times those of Paris’s Line 14, and more than twice as expensive as London’s Crossrail (the costliest on earth, outside of New York). These much cheaper lines in Paris, London and elsewhere are not easy suburban extensions in third-world countries with low labor costs – they are lines that strike through the cores of New York City’s first-world peer megacities, with ancient and complex underground tunneling environments and strong worker protections and good pay.
Compared to the first phase of the Second Avenue subway, the East Harlem phase’s utility per dollar has dropped dramatically. The first phase will host 202,000 weekday riders, the MTA predicts, while the second phase will host half that. While the first phase cost around $22,000 per weekday rider, the second phase is estimated to cost more than $59,000. The higher cost per rider combined with an anti-transit Republican government in Washington makes the chances that the project will be funded any time soon slim, to say nothing of future phases downtown, or outer borough projects like Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, Northern Boulevard in Queens or Third Avenue in the Bronx.
Faced with such long odds, it’s time for New Yorkers who care about transit to stand up and say enough is enough. Supporting transit in theory is one thing, but blind obedience to an agency whose primary goal is keeping labor, contractors and warring management fiefdoms happy is not helpful to the cause of better transit.
Bringing costs back down to earth for New York’s subway projects wouldn’t be about saving money, but about building more transit. For a bit more than the $6 billion the MTA wants to spend on a two-mile, three-stop extension of the Second Avenue line to 125th Street, London built a full 10 new stations on the Jubilee Line in the late 1990s. For €3.1 billion, Amsterdam is driving its six-mile North-South metro line through the city’s core, beneath its 17th century canals, to connect its three main train stations – and that was after a 40 percent cost overrun.
If New York City could build subways at the same cost as its European counterparts, the $10 billion in spent and planned money for the first two phases of the Second Avenue subway could have paid for the entire line, from the Financial District up to 125th Street and Lexington Avenue. At a cost of around $1 billion per mile – still very high by continental European standards – the MTA would even have enough cash left over to head west and dig a crosstown subway to meet the 2/3, A/B/C/D and 1 trains, giving every line in the Bronx a two-seat ride to Manhattan’s dense far east side, and begin work on another line entirely in the outer boroughs. Convincing the state and federal government – and even the city – to contribute money to subway building would be far easier if the return were full new lines serving the entire region, rather than short stubs serving just a neighborhood or two.
When Trump was elected, a former Republican congressional staffer tweeted some advice for influencing public policy: call your elected representatives at their district offices. Don’t tweet at them, don’t send them email, don’t send them letters – call them. Tell them that you’re fed up with the MTA’s excuses on its costs, tell them that you love transit too much to let prices spiral into impossibility. Tell them that it’s time for capital construction chief Michael Horodniceanu to move on and for the MTA to find fresh blood. Tell them that it’s time to start standing up to the iron triangle of contractors, unions and management, in cahoots to prevent New York from progressing into the late 20th century, nevermind the twenty-first. Tell them that it’s well past time to address the issue, and they can’t take your vote for granted if they don’t.
To that end, see below for the district offices of New York’s two U.S. Senators, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and the state politicians who are most affected by the MTA’s inability to control costs and build the transit the city needs. Most people don’t have time to get deeply involved in politics, but everybody has time to make a 60-second phone call. Call them and tell them how you feel – it may be the most effective thing you ever do in politics.
To find your U.S. Representative, enter your zip code here, and then search for their district office phone number and call it. Do the same for your state assembly member here, and your state senator here. (These two may be the most important, since they have the most direct influence over the MTA.) I won’t list them all since there are a lot, but the district office numbers are very easy to find – take five seconds to Google them, and look for the number (it’s usually at the bottom of their main web page). If you live in New Jersey, do the same – the Gateway project suffers from the same sky-high costs and questionable design as the MTA’s projects, and your state and federal officials deserve to hear for you about it too.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo: (518) 474-8390
Sen. Chuck Schumer: (212) 486-4430
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand: (212) 688-6262
U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (East Side, Brooklyn north of Grand St., Long Island City and Astoria): (212) 860-0606
N.Y.S. Sen. Liz Krueger (Upper East Side, Midtown East, Murray Hill and Flatiron): (212) 490-9535
N.Y.S. Sen.-Elect Adriano Espaillat (Washington Heights, Inwood and the Far West Side): (212) 544-0173
Asm. Robert Rodriguez (East Harlem): (212) 828-3953
While making a few phone calls is the best way to tell them you care about this issue, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Do what you can – call one or two, or email them instead. And after you do, call, tweet and email your friends and tell them to the same. Elected officials work for you – the voter, straphanger and taxpayer – and serve at your pleasure. Don’t let them forget it.
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.
For many people, the end of 2016 can’t come soon enough, but for the MTA, the end of 2016 brings with it a promise to open the Second Ave. Subway that may soon prove impossible to meet. With just 25 days left in the year, the MTA hasn’t yet said when — or if — the long-awaited Phase 1 of this new subway line will open this month, and New York politicians are impatiently tapping their proverbial feet.
Last month’s MTA Board update brought more of the same old, same old to the public. Although the pace of testing had increased significantly, the MTA would have to maintain a breakneck pace to complete testing by mid-December to get the approvals to open the line this year, and it seemed likely that the 72nd St. station simply wouldn’t be ready in time. Since the November 14 update that showed escalator and elevator installation lagging and fire safety and communications systems behind schedule, the MTA has gone radio silent on progress. The next MTA Board committee meetings are scheduled for Monday, and by then, the MTA will have to make a public announcement on the immediate fate of Manhattan’s newest subway lines.
If the news is bad, however, expect some unhappiness out of City Hall and Albany. As The Wall Street Journal reported Monday, New York politicos are putting pressure on the MTA to get this thing done. Mike Vilensky reports:
A spokeswoman for the MTA said Friday that the agency is “working around the clock” to reach its goal of opening by 2017, a timeline set seven years ago. “We are making progress everyday,” she said.
While some transit analysts said spilling a month or two past the planned start date would have little impact in the long run, others said the agency’s reputation is at stake.
“This multibillion-dollar project has taken decades to finish and the MTA owes it to residents and small businesses to wrap up construction as soon as possible,” said Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, a Democrat who is chairman of the council’s transportation committee. “The MTA must always guarantee the safety of its riders, but this has taken long enough and they need to keep to schedule.”
Rodriguez may be willing to go public with his platitudes, but he’s far from the only one watching. Those with knowledge of the situation tell me that the Governor is breathing down the MTA’s collective neck as well. Though he’s not in a position to do much if the MTA misses its self-imposed December deadline, I understand that he won’t be happy with the MTA for blowing yet another major deadline on yet another big-ticket item, and with Cuomo’s ultimately goal perhaps a run for an office a little bit higher up on the food chain than New York governor, getting things done on time — whatever that may mean when it comes to the MTA — is important.
All of this public pressure of course leads to another question: What happens if the MTA doesn’t open the Second Ave. Subway until early 2017, as many in the construction and engineering community expect? Most likely, the answer is a big fat nothing. The ribbon-cutting will be grand, the residents weary but happy, and the bureaucratic jobs all will be safe. Opening on time is good for the MTA’s beleaguered reputation, good for a governor suddenly committed to public transit, and good for Upper East Siders who have lived with a decade’s worth of construction. But what’s a few more months between friends anyway?
Take a gander at the two options the MTA is considering for its upcoming biennial fare hike:
I’ll have a full rundown of the options later. The short of it is that new fares go into effect on March 19, 2017, and the MTA Board will vote on one of the two proposals following eight public meetings that will be held throughout December. If the past is prologue, the MTA will go with Plan B — a jump in the base fare but a substantial pay-per-ride discount. Either way, those 30-day unlimited ride cards will soon cost $121, nearly double what they cost in 1998 when they were first introduced.
No more promises of “three to five years.” After over half a decade of promises, the MTA Board is set to vote Wednesday on a plan that would finally bring countdown clocks to the B Division trains — the subway’s lettered lines — by the end of March of 2018. Based off the current pilot running at eight stations along the BMT Broadway line, the new system will be run by Transit Wireless infrastructure and will be a part of an initiative to bring wifi to the system’s outdoor stations. It’s not based on the same signal system upgrades as the A Division countdown clocks but should cost under $32 million to install.
Following Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s push to speed up the installation of the underground wireless and cell network so that all underground stations are wired by the end of this year, Transit Wireless has the capacity to implement additional technological upgrades, and the MTA and Transit Wireless are set to expand wifi capabilities at the 109 aboveground stations. The cellular carriers are on board — especially for popular stations where their networks can be overloaded — because of the ability to colocate cellular equipment within Transit Wireless base stations, and Transit Wireless is on board because this gives them an opportunity to expand their footprint in the subway system.
But the wifi is just a benefit. The main attraction are countdown clocks using commercially available off-the-shelf components that won’t run the MTA a bill in the nine-figure range. The technology will utilize Bluetooth, sensors, beacons and wifi to determine train arrivals times. Each of the B division stations with two LCD screens per platform and one outside of fare control. The data will run from the beacons to a cloud-based system that will determine arrival times, and all of the data will be available in the MTA’s Subwaytime app.
One way or another, Transit Wireless will bring these countdown clocks online, and if the MTA chooses to expand Transit Wireless’ wifi capabilities to the above-ground stations, the agency will save money on installation. The total installation costs for wifi and the countdown clock technology will be a little over $211,000 per station for the aboveground stations and around $54,000 per underground station (which are already wired for certain Transit Wireless capabilities). The total capital costs would run around $31.7 million with $5 million in annual operating fees, subject to a CPI multiplier each year.
The low cost is an extension of the wifi expansion plan I mentioned. If the MTA and Transit Wireless don’t agree on a wifi franchise license for the aboveground stations, the train arrival boards will move ahead but at a cost of about 50% more. Eventually, the wifi capabilities are going to be necessary for the MTA’s new fare payment system, but more on that soon. Meanwhile, the agency also let slip that it is in discussions with Transit Wireless for a plan to wire the tunnels as well, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
This is a pretty fast turnaround for a project we haven’t really been expecting. In spite of a funding request in the current capital plan, the MTA has given no indication that a systemwide plan was in the works. The BMT pilot came through via pressure from the governor’s office, and an ambitious 16-month rollout seems set to follow. It may not be the perfect system — but it’s far better than the current non-existent system. And after years of hearing that B Division countdown clocks are still three to five years away, we can say with some certainty that, if all goes according to plan, B Division countdown clocks are now just 16 months down the tracks.