Archive for Second Avenue Subway

Who needs subway ventilation grates when we’ve got this to look forward to instead?

One of the dirty little not-so-secrets about the latest round of MTA construction concerns just how far underground everything is. East Side Access checks in at a depth of 180 feet; the 7 line extension will be around 80 feet deep; and the Second Ave. Subway stations around the same. As a comparison, some of the original IRT stops were a flight of stairs below the surface.

As a practical and operation matter, these depths mean lots and lots of escalators. The MTA will install fancy escalators at the end of the 7 line that are at an incline. They’ll install 47 escalators to deliver folks from the absurdly deep East Side Access cavern with travel times long enough to catch up on sleep, eat lunch or read a book. The Second Ave. Subway will also have escalators but clearly not to the same extent as the deepest of the deep.

New Yorkers aren’t used to these escalators in the same way as, say, subway riders in Washington and underground riders in London are. Our system is close to the surface with stays. Much of the system predates escalators, and at those stations that have them, constant maintenance problems seem to crop up. And anyway aren’t we all too impatient for a slow-moving staircase?

These deep stations will be a bit a shock to the system for those of us used to sub-surface transit being only a flight or two downstairs. Even the four-level descent to the 6th Ave. line at West 4th St. will seem a bit tame by comparison, and so instead of covering the why — why are we building such deep subways anyway? — The Times has taken human interest transit stories to a new level. These new subway stations will have no grates, Sam Roberts has discovered.

For nearly 110 years, since the advent of underground trains in New York City, the metal sidewalk grates have been about much more than mundane natural ventilation for miles of subterranean subway tunnels. They have become urban artifacts, all 39,000 of them. They are the bane of women in high heels; a place for flicking cigarette butts, for expectorating chewing gum or for dropping valuables; a source of warmth to ward off a stiff winter’s wind; and a frightening opening to detour around.

But when the first phase of the Second Avenue subway makes its debut in 2016 — the first major expansion of the system in over half a century — these familiar, if unappealing, pieces of the city’s streetscape will be missing. Instead of flowing naturally from sidewalk grates, air will be pumped in and out of mechanical ventilating towers near every air-conditioned station, said Michael Horodniceanu, the president of capital construction for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “No more heel problems,” Dr. Horodniceanu said.

In addition to breaking heels, grates are for … avoiding, because they emit the unmistakably dank smell of the city’s underbelly or because they may seem more rickety than a cracked concrete sidewalk. They give way on the rarest of occasions, especially ones in the road that are rattled by heavy vehicles. In 1988, a woman getting out of a taxicab in Brooklyn fell through a grate to the tracks 50 feet below; officials said the grate had been weakened by cars driving over it during road repairs.

It’s truly hard to grow nostalgic over subway grates, but somehow, Roberts has accomplished just that. And yet, he doesn’t explore why the subways will be so deep as to make grates completely useless and completely necessary. But we should know, why? It’s because the MTA is constructing deep-bore subways so as not to risk the ire of a cut-and-cover NIMBYism. Much as how an elevated line will not see the light of day despite advances in engineering reducing the noise and blight, cut and cover and the disruptions it brings will never return to New York.

In exchange, we have billion-dollar station caverns and tunnel boring machines that chew through Manhattan schist. We have massive ventilation structures that will likely be architectural eyesores above street level as well, but hey, at least your keys and Marilyn Monroe’s dress are safe. That’s what counts, right?

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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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Who needs a new subway station in developed areas anyway?

When I think about the benefits of the Second Ave. Subway, my thoughts turn to property value. Already upzoned in anticipation of the subway decades ago, the Upper East Side will see real estate prices spike when the subway debuts. It will provide significantly faster and more comfortable rides for 200,000 subway riders per day and will open up a large portion of the neighborhood closest to the East River to transit access. I’d think, then, that real estate developers would love the idea of a subway line.

I would of course be somewhat wrong. Amongst some circles of developers, the Second Ave. Subway is a useless vanity project while the real value lies in sending the subway to unchartered territories. The 7 line extension is instead the worthwhile project. Of course, it helps if this world view comes from the man once in charge of ensuring that the 7 line extension went forward, but the thinking underscores why developers do not often rush to embrace funding mechanisms for new subway lines in the city.

While speaking at the Forum for Urban Design’s Next New York dinner last night, both John Zuccotti and Dan Doctoroff issued statements arguing against the Second Ave. Subway as a worthwhile project. Stephen Smith was on hand to report, and he filed a story for The Observer. As Smith noted, Doctoroff had some choice words for this site’s namesake. “A silly little spur that doesn’t generate anything other than some convenience for people who are perfectly happy to live where they lived before,” Doctoroff said. He referred to it “a subway that doesn’t have any value added” and a “pet project” of the MTA and Sheldon Silver.

Smith’s reaction tracks mine:

Are we talking about the same subway…? The one that will serve one of the densest neighborhoods in the city? The one that’s supposed to relieve a subway line that carries more passengers than the entire Washington Metro system? The one that’s been planned for the better part of a century? The one that Yorkville was upzoned in anticipation of decades ago? The one that, despite having only four stops, is projected to carry more riders than the entire length of the L train?

…But alas, the comments were the perfect illustration of the mile-wide chasm between transit planners and real estate folks when it comes to picking projects. Transit planners think of projects in terms of the riders who will be served (200,000 each weekday for the Second Avenue line’s first segment, from 63rd Street to 96th)—to many transit advocates, a neighborhood with an existing population deserves infrastructure more than an empty one whose sole constituency is developers.

Real estate insiders, on the other hand, think of transit primarily as a way of spurring development, and are not swayed by arguments about easing overcrowding or serving tax-paying citizens. And it wouldn’t be the first time Mr. Doctoroff has argued that transit should serve the needs of developers over existing New Yorkers—when the 7 train stop at 10th Avenue and 41st Street was cut, he downplayed the significance, since buildings were already going up in Hell’s Kitchen without it. (By that logic, what was the point of the entire Independent Subway System, now the A/C/E, B/D/F/M and G trains?)

As you may have expected, Zuccotti expressed his support for the 7 line extension — a subway route to an area primed for new development. Doctoroff, who was in charge of the project while serving in the Bloomberg Administration, was forced to cut a station that would have served preexisting buildings at 41st and 10th, but that point isn’t important to developers.

This story and these comments detail, as Smith notes, the disconnect between transit planners and real estate developers. It’s why no one in Brooklyn is agitating for a Utica Ave. or Nostrand Ave. subway extension, why the Second Ave. Subway enjoys lukewarm support from REBNY and why the 7 line has been celebrated in some circles. Until we figure out a way to bridge that divide, built-up areas that need subway service for reasons other than virgin development won’t get the transit infrastructure they deserve. What a shame.

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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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At the rate the grade inflation in her report cards are heading, Representative Carolyn Maloney will be primed to give the Second Ave. Subway an A+ just in time for it to open in late 2016 — if it indeed opens in late 2016. After giving the project a B- in 2009 and a B in 2010 and 2011, Maloney has now given the project a B+, its highest grade in four report cards.

Now that the Upper East Side has begrudgingly accepted the pace of construction and the MTA has made more than a token effort to alleviate some of the project’s hardships, the benefits are coming into view, and Maloney is paying more heed to the pluses. “The project’s merit, its economic benefits, the MTA’s outreach efforts and the pace at which construction is being completed all get high marks,” she said. “When the MTA broke ground for the Second Avenue Subway in April 2007, there were a lot of skeptics, but with the progress of the last six years, the skeptics are starting to have to eat their words. In fact, we have now crossed the halfway point for Second Avenue Subway construction. I encourage the MTA to continue its progress and to keep engaging the public, as the project continues.”

Over the years, the report card has gotten lengthier and lengthier. It now tops eight pages in printed or PDF form, but it covers familiar ground. The project’s merit and economic benefits again warrant A+ grades while the MTA has improved communication with the public. Maloney is happy that tunneling has been completed and sees reason to be hopeful that construction problems have been mitigated. The B+ grade in that category, she says, “signifies good progress in getting the job done, with room for improvement in hope that there will be no more accidents.”

As she shifts her attention to the more problematic aspects of the project, though, I found myself thinking more about the items missing from the report card than anything else. In giving the project planning a B, she devotes a few paragraphs to the Yorkshire Towers dispute. The MTA, she says, “has declined to satisfy community complaints about mid-block entrances for the 86th Street station despite broad condemnation by local residents.”

While Maloney has to protect her constituents (and her re-election chances), the Yorkshire Towers complaints are entirely without merit and are designed to protect a mid-block driveway on East 86th St. Seeing a politician sympathetic to this cause — which even some residents of the building do not support — is hardly comforting.

As she runs through the rest of the grades — better marks for budgetary management and projected on-time performance; C-range grade for construction impact mitigation and forward progress on station entrances and ancillary buildings — she’s notably silent on the Second Ave. Subway’s future, and now is the ideal time to start speaking up for future funding and future phases. For all intents and purposes, the MTA is through planning Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway; it’s through bidding out the contracts; and it’s through fighting for money. All that’s left is the actual work and some rolling stock delivers in mid-2016.

Maloney spills a lot of ink praising the project’s economic benefits and the current job creation numbers. She looks ahead to the ridership and notes the potential promise of a full line. In her press release, Sheldon Silver says that he “looks forward to the day when it reaches my Lower East Side community,” and in her report card, Maloney promises that the next edition — whenever that may be — “will also consider what the MTA is(or is not) doing to prepare for Phase II.”

But as a relatively powerful representative in Congress, Maloney is in a position to do more than just grade the MTA on its plans for the future. She can work to secure the next federal grand that could push the MTA to start the planning process for Phase 2 right now. The project needs a new champion, and Maloney could be it.

Cutting up the Second Ave. Subway project into phases was both its saving grace and a death knell. It made Phase 1 very easy to fund and complete but created a situation where Phases 2-4 are more theoretical than real. If Maloney and other East Side politicians want to see a full Second Ave. Subway line, the time to act is now. Otherwise, once Phase 1 opens, it will likely be, as Tom Prendergast said a few days ago, decades until the other phases are realized. If the subway riders of New York issue a report card, then, assessing our politicians’ overall commitment to the Second Ave. Subway, I’m not sure anyone would warrant even the B+ Maloney awarded yesterday.

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The LTV Squad took a tour of the Chinatown segment of the 1970s-era Second Ave. Subway a few years ago. (Photo via LTV Squad)

Every few years, some event, some stunt, some daredevil makes headlines that remind New Yorkers about the wealth of infrastructure, used or otherwise, that lies beneath the streets. No one knew about the South 4th Street subway shell until the Underbelly project came along, and few people remember various abandoned subway stations until they make the news.

The latest entry in this sporadic on abandoned infrastructure involves a topic near and dear to my heart: the Second Ave. Subway. At various stretches along the East Side, partially-built tunnel segments lie dormant beneath the streets. The sections north of 96th St. are due to become a part of Phase 2 of the project, but other portions built during the 1970s will remain forever devoid of trains. One such section spans a few blocks between Pell and Canal Sts. with an entrance portal just south of the Manhattan Bridge.

A gang of adventurers, explorers, trespassers — call them what you will — found the entrance and decided to host a party down there. Gothamist, in an intentionally meandering post, takes us along for the ride, and despite promises not to reveal the location and some sleight-of-hand attempts at misdirection, it’s clear that the party took place in the 1970s-era Second Ave. Subway tunnel.

No one, of course, is happy. The MTA has noted that trespassing is dangerous and illegal, and the NYPD are investigating. If the cops can’t keep limited-access abandoned infrastructure secure, one might wonder, how can they guard against attacks on the current subway system? Meanwhile, this isn’t the first time organizers thought they could publish photos of an illicit undertaking while keeping the location a secret, and this isn’t the first time it took Internet users a grand total of about 20 minutes to identify the location. Keeping a secret from those who enjoy and obsess over New York City’s infrastructure is all but impossible in an age of digital photography.

Many though are probably wondering about this stretch of subway tunnel. There are no tracks, and there are no stations. So what is it? For a video tour, check out Steve Duncan’s walk through the tunnel from early 2012. The tunnel itself was part of an $8.3 million (in 1973 money) contract for the lower portion of the Second Ave. Subway. At the time, before the city went broke, it tried to build the new route all at once, but this section was to run from Chatham Square to Canal Street. It’s unclear how much of the tunnel currently exists, but clearly enough is there to host around 150 people comfortably.

Interestingly, the tunnel itself won’t be a part of the current Second Ave. Subway project if it ever progresses to Phase 4. According to the Final Environmental Impact Statement, because of the alignment choices through Lower Manhattan, “it would not be possible to use the existing length of tunnel near Chatham Square for the subway operation because of the shift in the horizontal and vertical alignment. The existing tunnel segment could instead be used for ancillary facilities, such as a power substation or ventilation facility, adjacent to (and higher than) the subway tunnel.” Ultimately, then, the only way to see this space is to sneak in, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

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The staircases at Entrance 2 have been designed to minimize passenger flow in front Yorkshire Towers by siphoning riders away from the active driveway.

Despite losing one law suit over the 86th St. station entrance locations and getting threatened with legal sanctions over a second, the Yorkshire Towers Tenants Association is at it again. This time, the Tenants Association has proposed a sidewalk bump-out and entrance at the corner of 2nd Ave. and 86th St. rather than a mid-block entrance that will better serve the entire neighborhood. “This will be the 86th Street lemon,” Doron Gopstein, head of the association, said.

The MTA, which recently announced the winning bid for the final contract for the 86th St. station, is fed up with these machinations, and in a statement to DNA Info, a spokesman expressed the agency’s frustration. “Enough,” the MTA said in a statement. “There is a reason why their first lawsuit was dismissed and why a judge threatened sanctions against their attorney for filing a similar, frivolous lawsuit. The MTA has no interest in delaying a project that will benefit hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers in order to appease the parochial self-interests of a select few.”

Remember: Some residents of Yorkshire Towers are protesting station entrances that direct passengers away from the building’s curb-cut driveway that fronts East 86th St. They’re protesting a subway station that will finally serve thousands of Upper East Side residents. They’re bringing up legal costs and engaging in maneuvers that could further delay construction. Parochial self-interests indeed.

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It’s hard to believe — and most long-time New Yorkers still won’t believe it until the revenue service date — that the Second Ave. Subway is finally on the horizon, but it is. Today, the MTA reached a milestone as it awarded the final contract for Phase 1 of the project. For a cool $208,376,000, the 86th Street Constructors Joint Venture will complete the station finishes, mechanical, electrical and plumbing work, ancillary buildings and entrances for the 86th Street Station.

This award is in line with a similar one awarded for the 72nd St. station site earlier this year, and MTA officials are pleased as punch. “We’ve reached the final mile marker for this legendary project and can now see the finish line for Phase 1 of the Second Avenue Subway. This is a great milestone for the MTA and for all New Yorkers,” Michael Horodniceanu, President of MTA Capital Construction, said in a statement.

With the $4.45 billion project now approximately 42 months away, the only questions surrounding it involve the future of the entire Second Ave. Subway line. Phase 1 is priced out, awarded and well under way. When do we get started on Phase 2?

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For over two years, multi-story structures along Second Ave. called muck houses have protected Upper East Side buildings and residents from exposure to substantial dirt and debris from subway construction. Now, with work moving ahead slowly but surely, the MTA has unveiled a timeline for the removal of these structures, according to today’s amNew York.

According to the article, the 72nd St. muckhouse will be dismantled by the end of August with the 69th St. structure to follow later this fall. The same structures at 86th St. will disappear next summer. Those are already two stories shorter as the MTA’s experiences at 72nd St. allowed them to build more efficiently at 86th. If anything, this institutional memory and learning process is another argument for continuing subway construction underneath Second Ave. long before SAS Phase 1 wraps in 2016.

While some Upper East Siders complain in the article about these structures’ effects on traffic, others have begrudgingly accepted them. “If a New Yorker cannot tolerate something as simple as this, they’re not a New Yorker,” James Kiss said. “We want progress, we expect progress.” Progress — in the form of a new subway line — cannot arrive soon enough.

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A premature destination sign spotted recently on a Q train. (Via imgur)

AMC’s Mad Men is one of those distinctive New York City shows that’s captured the imagination of the nation. I haven’t been a regular viewer in a few seasons for a variety of reasons, but I’ll follow along now and then. During Sunday night’s episode, my Twitter mentions exploded during one season in particular as our favorite soon-to-be-existing subway line garnered a wink and a nod.

In the scene, which you can view here, Peggy Olson is checking out an apartment on York and 84th St., and she’s concerned that it’s too far away from the subway. Her broker tries to seal the hard sell: “Believe me, when they finish the Second Avenue subway, this apartment will quadruple in value.”

Get it? It’s 2013, and there’s still no Second Ave. Subway. Across the country, many viewers just moved on from the line, but New Yorkers nodding knowingly. Don’t get your hopes up, Peggy. You’ll be 77 before the Second Ave. Subway actually starts serving the Upper East Side.

To me, the scene struck a few chords. First, Peggy’s blight brings up a related issue I’ve touched upon in the past: When the Second Ave. Subway opens in approximately 43 months, it will bring up real estate prices from Second Ave. eastward. All of a sudden, York and East End Avenue residents will be a significantly shorter walk to the subway, and businesses will see increased pedestrian flow. Even those prickly residents at Yorkshire Towers might find the subway in their driveway to be a convenience, and the disruptions from construction will recede into the past.

Second, I wondered about its historical accuracies. Would people in April of 1968 been talking about the Second Ave. Subway and its construction? Already, the city had tried to build the subway and failed. It had been included in the 1930s-era Second System plans and an aborted construction effort in the 1950s left the city needing the line. In late 1967 and early 1968, political forces aligned behind an effort to kickstart construction, and a $2.9 billion transportation plan unveiled in February 1968 included the Second Ave. line. Funded hadn’t been identified, and work had yet to start. But a real estate agent could have used ongoing momentum to push the apartment.

Fast forward 45 years, and we’re still awaiting. That’s why the Mad Men joke worked. But what of the actual subway construction itself? Last week, the MTA announced that the giant muck houses at 72nd St. and 69th St. would be removed as blasting has been completed, and Rep. Carolyn Maloney celebrated the progress. “With the muck houses coming down and the final contract out for bid, the Second Avenue Subway is fast becoming a reality,” she said in a statement. “These milestones are major steps forward for a project that will bring relief to commuters who need a better way to reach their destinations.”

I’m sure Peggy, though, has long since given up that East Side apartment and hopes of a subway line coming to rescue her. As a long-time New Yorker, she’s probably adopted the attitude of many: They’ll believe in the Second Ave. Subway when it exists. The home stretch nears.

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