Archive for Second Avenue Subway
Unfortunately, for the MTA and its contractors working underneath the Upper East Side, time is marching inevitably forward toward December. As the agency is facing mounting pressure both internally and externally to deliver Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway by the end of the year, we are receiving monthly updates in the form of MTA Board meeting materials on the project, and each month the story is the same: The MTA’s work schedule is aggressive and not being met with the usual suspects looming as issues. Last month, I detailed how escalators and elevators may again delay the opening of a major MTA project, and this month, we hear more of the same.
The latest is found starting on page 48 of the MTA Capital Construction pdf that the MTA’s oversight committee will discuss later this morning. The short of it is that one station — 72nd Street — may gum up the works for the rest of Phase 1, and overall, escalator and elevator installation efforts are falling behind schedule. Right now, four of seven key milestones at 72nd Street are behind schedule. These involve elevator and HVAC installation and tunnel vent fans. At both 86thand 96th Streets, escalator and elevator installation is a few weeks behind schedule. All work at 63rd St. remains on schedule even as half the station continues to serve F trains.
In each case, the MTA claims the delayed timelines will not affect the projected December 2016 revenue service date, but the agency’s independent engineering consultant isn’t as confident. First, the IEC notes that only 70 percent of tracking milestones met in March were met and that the lack of improvements at 72nd St. mean that the problems with escalator and elevator installation “remain close to impacting the target [revenue service date].” As they have done so in past months, the IEC again warns that the MTA’s testing schedule is “highly compressed which maximizes the demand on NYCT staff.” But this is an all-hands-on-deck effort right as the MTA is engaged in what is essentially an eight-month sprint, but demand on staff is an ancillary concern at best.
Ultimately, the IEC is worried, and they sum up their concerns succinctly:
- The work effort at the 72nd Street Station site has not reached the level necessary to support the accelerated schedule.
- Late design changes have continued through March and the backlog of changes may present a risk to the scheduled completion of the testing program.
In response to this development that one of three stations could hold up the entire project, a few readers have asked me if the MTA could open Phase 1 but keep 72nd Street closed until elevator and escalator installation is completed. As of now, this isn’t a particularly likely scenario and may present a challenge to the way the MTA operates. For now, MTA Capital Construction, a distinct agency under the MTA umbrella, has control over the entirety of Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway, and when all systems are completed, tested and accepted, they’ll turn over the project to MTA New York City Transit, a different agency under the MTA umbrella. (For the 7 line extension, MTA CC didn’t turn over the reins until shortly before the ribbon-cutting on the station, and even now, remediation work is ongoing.)
MTA CC can’t turn over part of the project while retaining control over another part, and the MTA can’t get certified to open the station with, say, only escalators and no elevators due to ADA compliance issues. It is essentially an all or nothing proposition. So everyone is holding their collective breaths as December ticks closer. We’ll get another report in May, but the key updates will arrive in June when the testing schedule must come into focus to meet the December revenue service date. We won’t know until very late in the year if the project will be delayed, but the warning signs are there. Anyone betting on the actual opening date?
For the MTA’s $27 billion five-year capital plan that is now entering its 16th month of being late, the budget allocates a whopping $1 billion in actual cash with some vague references to the overall $27 billion five-year program. Cuomo of course played this up as though the entire thing has been funded, but we are no closer to understanding how this money will be realized than we were yesterday, last week, last month or last year. Unless momentum behind a push for the Move New York plan materializes, it will be more debt or (or is that “and”?) bust for the MTA. (New York also committed to spend an equal amount on upstate roads despite a far worse return on its investment. At least the Erie County executive was happy. After all, New York City residents are the ones paying for his roads, but I digress.)
In response to this magnanimous nothing from his boss, MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast released a statement of praise, calling the budget appropriations a “monumental win for the people of New York.” It’s not really a win except that it paves the way for the MTA to gain Capital Program Review Board approval and start spending money it doesn’t really have for projects it badly needs. He continued:
“This $27 billion agreement marks the largest investment ever made in the MTA. It is an important victory not only for New York City and its suburbs but for all the communities across New York State. The plan will enable the MTA to maintain critical infrastructure while renewing, enhancing and expanding our system to meet the ridership and growth demands of the future and improving the current experience for the millions who critically rely on our system each day.
The Governor has once again assured a year-to-year increase in state operating assistance for the transit system and brought us a significant increase in support for the MTA, including a commitment to the second phase of the extension of Second Avenue Subway to East Harlem, and billions of dollars for the essential work of keeping the transit system safe and reliable…The MTA has been hard at work preparing projects supported by the new Capital Program and will now submit a revised plan to our Board as well as to the State’s Capital Program Review Board.”
Most of this is what we call pure puffery, but the last sentence is key. The MTA is going to submit their third version of the capital plan — and it will actually restore an important item cut from the last iteration. That’s right; Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway is back, baby.
The MTA has gotten a commitment of an additional $1 billion from the state for this phase, but the investment nods at the bifurcated nature of the plan. The current budget will allocate an additional $500 million to Phase 2 so that the MTA will have $1 billion for Phase 2 under the 2015-2019 plan. This should be enough to complete all studies and design refreshes necessary and begin utility reconstruction by the end of 2019 which MTA sources have indicated is an aggressive but doable timeframe. The remaining $443 million will be a part of the state contributions to the 2020-2024 capital plan in recognition of the reality that Phase 2 won’t be completed until the mid-2020s.
After significant blowback when the MTA essentially moved $1 billion of Phase 2 funding to the 2020-2024 plan by eliminating from the 2015-2019 plan, Assembly members Rodriguez and Wright (that is, Robert and Keith and not Alex and David, as baseball fans would hope) were instrumental in securing these funds for the MTA and their constituents. They issued a statement this afternoon. “The restoration of significant funding for the Second Phase of the Second Avenue Subway represents a huge victory for the residents of East Harlem,” Rodriguez said.
So what comes next? The fight for an actual source of dollars for the capital plan will continue; the MTA will submit a revised plan and hope to avoid debt; and Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway is exceedingly likely to become a reality within the next decade. It all sounds good, but next week, we’ll take a look at what Paris has planned to open before 2030. And then we can wonder how New York City went so far off the rails. In the meantime, tonight is but one step in a continuing saga.
Over the weekend, House Representative Carolyn Maloney stood in front of the future Second Ave. Subway station at 86th St. to announce her reelection campaign for Congress. Maloney has served since winning election in 1992 and isn’t likely to face much of a challenge. She captured 80 percent of the vote in 2014.
In announcing her campaign, she played up the billions she has helped steer toward New York City infrastructure investments, but her press releases leading up to the announcement were a bit of a mess. In one, she touted, in various places that either 16 or 4 new subway stops would open this year at a cost of either $4 or $8 billion. Her press team also claimed that all 8.5 miles of the line would open this year (though with only four new stations). It was total nonsense and highlighted how the Congressional representative from the Upper East Side couldn’t be bothered with the details of the first phase of the Second Ave. Subway. Thanks for the money, but perhaps learn the details behind your investment.
My skepticism aside, Maloney used the opportunity to stress that part of the Second Ave. Subway will open this year, but will it? As part of the build-up to the supposed December 2016 revenue service date, the MTA and its independent engineering consultant have been giving monthly updates to the Board. In December, the early reports warned of a moderate risk of delay, and January brought similar news. In February, the MTA vowed to spend more to accelerate work, but in this month’s update, it’s not clear the agency will meet those goals. Furthermore, the IEC and MTA give some hints as to the cause of potential delays, and they appear to be some usual suspects: tight testing timelines and concerns that escalators and elevators won’t be installed in time.
The latest materials — available here as a PDF — weave a narrative of an agency trying to cram as much work as possible into the next nine months, but the MTA admits to certain yellow and red flags. Most of the issues concern testing. Testing at various stations for elevators, escalators, fire safety systems and vent fans may not be complete until the end of April, one month later than scheduled. As you may recall, issues with these exact systems’ passing acceptance testing were a key driver behind the delayed opening of the 7 line extension. These though currently warrant only a yellow flag, but at 72nd St., installation for escalators and elevators at one entrance will not be completed until the end of October, leaving only two months for testing.
In response, the IEC notes that the MTA’s testing schedule may be overly aggressive. “There appears to be a limited allowance for test failure and retesting activities,” the IEC noted. Further, the issues with installation of those escalators and elevators is “close to impacting” the December 2016 revenue service date. The IEC again urges more spending to keep pace with the ticking clock and notes that late design changes and a backlog of change orders haven’t been cleared yet. Any testing failures will throw that December promise into doubt.
Ultimately, the story remains the same. The MTA still promises to open the line before the year is out, but time is ticking as the issues that could delay the project aren’t melting away. I still would expect a short delay, but word of one won’t come out for a few more months. Meanwhile, we wait — for escalators, elevators, key systems, and, of course, House representatives who care enough to get the details right.
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.
There is nothing quite like the fear of missing a looming deadline to inspire anyone to work a bit harder and a bit faster, as the MTA and its contractors are currently learning. Faced with the (for-some-reason) daunting task of delivering a major capital project somewhat on time (but only after years of shifting expectations), with ten months to go before 2016 runs out, the agency is entering acceleration mode and plans to spend $66 million worth of expenditures to speed up to work to ensure the Second Ave. Subway is ready for revenue service by year’s end.
The plan is set to come before the MTA Board during this week’s meetings, and if you read between the lines — or even if you read the lines themselves — it seems as though the agency is worried about that promise made all those years ago by MTA Capital Construction President Michael Horodniceanu to deliver Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway by the end of 2016. As the agency board materials note on page 131 of this pdf, “Failure to enter into the proposed Acceleration Agreements and implement the proposed acceleration plans will increase the risk that Revenue Service will not commence until sometime in 2017 which will also have a financial impact on construction management support costs as well as the operating budget and prolong crowded conditions on the Lexington Avenue line.”
That the project could face challenges meeting the December deadline is hardly breaking news by now. While the federal government has long doubted the 2016 date and believes a 2017 opening is more likely, the MTA’s Independent Engineering Consultant first warned of delays in December and reiterated this stance in January. In this month’s update, the IEC again raises concerns. It notes that certain major test dates have been postponed and design and scope change orders continue to be issued this late in the game. With the acceleration work set to reduce the project contingency, the MTA is fast running out of wiggle room.
That brings us to this request for accelerated work. As the MTA notes, perhaps discouragingly and perhaps alarming, in its request to enter into these agreements, opening up four new stations “presents logistical challenges unprecedented in modern New York City Transit operation.” With three different contractors working on three different stations at the same time, the MTA sees “enormous” and “complicated” challenges. That the language is so dire consider the relatively modest scope of Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway should give us agita regarding the future of any massive subway expansions in line with those underway by New York City’s international peer cities.
The acceleration work involves some relatively basic elements of the construction. Crews will begin to work extended shifts and some weekends to complete the stations, and the outstanding elements all involve what you would expect this close to completion. Behind-the-scenes power and mechanical rooms need more work; fan rooms, elevators and escalators must be ready; and finishes, testing and commissioning need to be complete before the Second Ave. Subway is certified for revenue service.
Meanwhile, as part of another modification (page 128 of this pdf), the MTA also just realized it is required to install 36 fire dampers at the 63rd St. station and somehow just discovered that the tunnel from 57th St./7th Ave. to 63rd St./Lexington is in bad shape. Here is how the Board materials describe the situation:
The tracks in the tunnel south of the 63rd St./Lexington Avenue Station to north of 57th Street and 7th Avenue Station were built in the late 1970s as part of the “New Routes” 63rd St. Line. These tracks never had regular train service, and have been rarely used, except for occasional re-routes. Currently there is no scheduled revenue service over them however, this will change once SAS service begins with the ‘Q’ train scheduled to operate along these tracks and continuing to the new 2nd Avenue Subway. Given the significant water ingress that has been constantly present in this area since its construction, the northbound and southbound tracks in this section have experienced severe degradation.
NYC Transit has determined that this tunnel section must be addressed immediately including the replacement of track, tunnel lighting, antenna cable, emergency alarms, emergency telephones, etc. The above track replacement and associated signal equipment work will be addressed through a third-party contract and NYC Transit in-house forces will address the remaining work, all of which must be completed in time for SAS Revenue Service. However, in order to perform this work, the water condition must be addressed first. NYC Transit has directed that the specialized chemical grout (NOH2O) and methods that were successfully employed on other MTACC and NYC Transit projects, be utilized in this tunnel section.
Now, you might be wondering how the MTA is only now just discovering this problem in a rather vital stretch of track key to launching the Second Ave. Subway, and for that, I have no answer yet. I will inquire this week as to how this just came to light. Contractors began this mitigation work in early January and should be able to finish in advance to ensure revenue service by the end of the year. The Board materials, however, note ominously that “the schedule impact of these modifications is still under review and any schedule adjustments will be addressed in a subsequent modification.”
This is a sprint now and the hurdles just keep on coming. Anyone out there expect to ride this new subway before we flip the calendar to 2017? With the obstacles, self-imposed or otherwise, in the MTA’s path, that is looking like one tough deadline to meet.
Friday was indeed a good day for Bert and the National Associate of W Lovers as we learned that the MTA will be restoring W train service to Astoria later this year in order to prepare for the debut of the Second Ave. Subway. The Q will run to 57th St./7th Ave. until the Second Ave. Subway “later this year,” per the MTA. That may be an optimistic timeline for Upper East Side service, but one way or another, this subway line will open soon. The W lives to tell that tale.
For a visual representation of what this service change means, check out this unofficial mock-up of future service a Redditor published a few weeks ago. The MTA has yet to release their own map showing the change or addition of the Second Ave. Subway, and I wonder why. They could opt to follow the WMATA’s strategy of showing lines in progress to build public knowledge and excitement, but it seems that we won’t see an updated map arrive until the subway is just about to open, as we did with the 7 line.
Although the W train grabbed headlines earlier, the MTA announced a few other Second Ave. Subway-related milestones. The 96th St. station is now running on its permanent power supply though power lines have become a controversial part of the eventual Phase 2 work. More on that next week. Additionally, the final track crossover north of 72nd St. was completed. The MTA will award final contract modifications next week. As hard as it is to believe, a part of the Second Ave. Subway will soon become a reality.
Meanwhile, as we look forward to new subway service, we have to contest with weekend changes. After the jump, this weekend’s slate of service advisories, as sent to me from the MTA. Read More→
Don’t call it a comeback, but six years after getting unceremoniously dumped by a cash-starved MTA, the W train will make its triumphant return this fall, the MTA announced today. As part of the plan to maintain current subway service levels for Astoria once the Second Ave. Subway opens and the Q is diverted to the Upper East Side, the agency will restore the W train in a few months, before the Second Ave. Subway opens, effectively replacing the Q in Astoria. It’s a clear sign the opening of the Second Ave. Subway is drawing nearer and a welcome development for Astoria residents and businesses who were worried about the fate of their neighborhood’s subway service.
As of now, the MTA plans to restore this service ahead of the opening of the Second Ave. Subway so that the diversion of the Q to the Upper East Side is a seamless one, and while rumors of delays have swirled for months, the MTA still plans to open the Second Ave. Subway by year’s end. Along with the re-introduction of the W train, the BMT service patterns will revert back to their old configuration as follows:
- W trains will make all local stops between Astoria-Ditmars Boulevard and Whitehall St. during weekdays. There will be no W service on weekends or late nights (which is in line with current Q service to Astoria).
- N trains will run express in Manhattan between 34th St. – Herald Square and Canal St. on weekdays. N trains will run local on weekends and late nights.
- Q trains will continue to run local in Brooklyn and express in Manhattan to 57th St./7th Ave. until the Second Ave. Subway opens, and then, Q trains will run to 96th St./2nd Ave. with additional stops at Lexington Ave./63rd St., 72nd St./2nd Ave. and 86th St./2nd Ave. The Q will not stop at 49th St.
- R train service will be unchanged.
As the MTA notes in a release touting the news, “The changes, including the restoration of the W, maintain service frequency and loading guidelines for customers in Astoria and avoid significant deviations from current service that might confuse customers on those affected lines. Customers on the Broadway Line will also benefit from an increase in choices for express and local service in Manhattan.” The agency plans to hold a hearing on the new service patterns this spring, and the service additions, including operating the Q to Second Ave. and restoring the W, will cost around $13.7 million annually.
The good news here is for Astoria riders who were quite concerned with the planned diversion of the Q train. The MTA had stated its commitment to maintain service levels, and today’s news fulfills that promise. By restarting the W a few months before the Second Ave. Subway opens, operations will be seamless, and new signage will be in place throughout the system. (Never mind the reality that, just a few months ago, the MTA removed the last vestiges of the W train from strip maps on the 1.)
The bad news, if you want to call it that, concerns the W’s southern terminus. By ending the train at Whitehall St., the W does little for Brooklyn R train riders who have complained about unreliable service, long headways and crowded trains. Even some rush hour W service into Brooklyn would have been welcome, but that’s a battle riders can keep fighting. With W trains restored, the opportunity for those riders to make their case is stronger. Overall, though, this news is an expected and welcome development as the city inches closer to opening the Second Ave. Subway, 90 years in the making.
For those curious, the MTA’s press release on the W train and the latest on progress on the Second Ave. Subway is available here on the agency’s website.
When last we checked in on the Second Ave. Subway, the MTA Board had just heard a presentation regarding delays that may cause the project to miss its projected December opening date. Last month, the agency’s Independent Engineering Consultant warned of a “moderate risk of delay” should key activities remain outstanding and behind schedule. Yesterday, after a gap of only six weeks, the IEC returned with more warnings for potential delays, but the MTA reiterated its plan to have the Second Ave. Subway open before the year is out.
For its part, the MTA says it is ready to move testing and commissioning staff into on-site locations as soon as possible and is working with contractors to address and resolve any items that could delay the revenue service start date. The MTA also plans to implement “lessons learned” from the delayed openings of both the Fulton Street. Transit Center and the 7 line extension, but the IEC is skeptical these efforts will be sufficient. Noting new and backlogged change orders, the IEC said that it “has observed that several key activities slipped their scheduled completion dates in the six weeks since the December 2015 CPOC report. In particular, delays to provision of permanent power at 86th St and 96th Streets are of most concern as they could potentially impact the start of testing and commissioning.”
The IEC has recommended the MTA institute weekly meetings with its contractors “to properly status key activities and identify critical delays for mitigation and recovery” and has urged the agency to “complete the new integrated project schedule by integrating the communications testing with the accelerated testing of station equipment installations.” In other words, speed up the project schedule or else testing requirements won’t permit the MTA to open the northern extension of the Q train to 2nd Ave. and 96th St. by the end of December. The next IEC update is due in March.
In other news tangentially related to the Second Ave. Subway, Disney announced last week that Star Wars VIII will arrive in theaters in December of 2017 rather than in May. Last month, the overwhelming majority of those who voted in my poll felt that Star Wars would open before the Second Ave. Subway, but that was when the movie was scheduled for a summer 2017 release. I wonder if those results would hold in light of the new release date and the IEC warnings. My guess is that the Second Ave. Subway will miss the December 2016 date but open by the spring of 2017. Either way, the MTA has a lot riding on the next 11 months, and Upper East Side residents are watching closely.
Some pre-Christmas quick hits for you. I’ll post the service advisories Friday but expect a quiet end of the week. Subways and buses are operating on a normal weekday schedule for Christmas Eve and on a regular weekend schedule for Christmas Day.
Second Ave. Subway Phase 1 vs. Star Wars Episode VIII
As the credits rolled on the end of The Force Awakens, and audiences everywhere were left wondering about … Well, I can’t say without spoiling the movie, and I don’t want to do that yet. The curious among us will just have to wait until May 26, 2017 to find out how our heroes’ journeys continue. That date, as you may realize, is five months after the MTA has promised to open the Second Ave. Subway, but that date is in doubt. The feds have long predicted the MTA would miss their self-imposed deadline, and we recently learned of moderate risks of delays that could plague the project over the next 12 months.
Recently, I posed a question regarding this very matter to my Twitter followers, and, well, they’re not too confident in the MTA’s ability to deliver on time. As you can see from the results, an overwhelming majority of a representative sample of people who follow me on Twitter think Star Wars — which is set to open five months after the Second Ave. Subway should — will arrive first. That’s an understandable, if damning, indictment of the MTA’s project management abilities. The race is on.
Star Wars VIII opens 5/26/17. Phase 1 of 2 Ave Subway is supposed to open by 12/31/16. Which actually opens first?
— Second Ave. Sagas (@2AvSagas) December 21, 2015
Council members skeptical over new ferry service
As part of a $55 million effort to present a flawed solution to something that’s not really a problem, the mayor has pushed a five-borough ferry plan that’s supposed to take off in 2017. With fares set at $2.75 (and with no free transfer between the boats and the subways or buses) and routes that are far-flung and serve few of the people who truly need better access to the transit system, I’ve been skeptical of this plan for years. It takes resources away from higher-capacity solutions and seems designed to avoid NIMBY complaints regarding street space allocation. I’m not the only one wary of this plan, and now, a bunch of City Council members have expressed their concerns. These representatives are worried the ferry system won’t include regularly scheduled service frequent enough to be a success. That’s only half of a valid critique, but they’re probably right. I still believe the $55 million would be better spent on, say, significant upgrades in bus service. The money would go much further.
New commuter benefits law
Finally, a new commuter benefits law goes into effect on January 1, and New York City residents can save up to $443 a year on pre-tax transit spending. That’s the equivalent of nearly four months of free unlimited ride Metrocards. Gotham Gazette recently published a comprehensive explainer analyzing the new law and its effects on New York City residents and employers. According to the law’s proponents, nearly half a million people will now be eligible for transit benefits, and I’d urge everyone who can to take advantage of it. It’s a great way to save on transit costs. (This law is a big win for the Riders Alliance, and in federal news, Congress finally upped the level of pre-tax contributions eligible for transit spending to $255 a month, putting this savings on par with their parking subsidies.)
No matter the scope of the project, the MTA is not known for wrapping up construction on time. We’ve all seen staircases to subway stations closed for months longer than announced as work drags on, and the MTA’s 20-month delay in opening the 7 line extension seemed to evolve from exasperating to the butt of a joke and back. Now as December’s end draws near and 2016 lurks on the horizon, the MTA’s most public deadline yet — the completion of Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway — looms large, and the agency will have to race against time to open this northern extension of the Q train on time.
The MTA’s struggles with opening the Second Ave. Subway are well documented. Setting aside the 80-year history of this project, since 2005, the MTA has, at certain points, projected completion in each of 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. Amidst a rash of bad publicity and serious doubts over Capital Construction’s project management skills — doubts that still linger today — the agency vowed to open the first phase by the end of 2016, and even though the federal government has projected an early 2018 opening date, the MTA has not moved off of its promise to deliver a Second Ave. Subway before 2017.
With one year left, the MTA’s endgame is finally coming into view, and the agency is going to need to have a lot of things go right to meet that December 2016 promise. It hasn’t yet moved off its deadline, but in MTA Board materials released this weekend [pdf], the agency offered a glimpse at challenges that remain. Furthermore, the MTA’s Independent Engineering Consultant noted that the current schedule has “a moderate risk of delay” that would push completion beyond December 2016, but the MTA has “obtained high-level commitments from its contractors that support a December 2016 Revenue Service Date.” In other words, it’s all hands on deck from here on out.
So what are the big obstacles? The MTA and IEC acknowledge plenty. Currently, the IEC lists four key activities behind schedule. The first concerns permanent power at the 86th St. station which will delay the start of systems testing. The second involves construction of the entrances to the 72nd St. station, a problem obvious in its description. The third involves installation of communication and traction power equipment, and the fourth is track installation at 72nd St., another element problematic by its very existence. Try as they might, the MTA simply can’t run a subway without tracks.
The MTA currently has a proposed timeline for achieving each of these key activities, but the timeline is losing its flexibility (or contingency). Track installation, for instance, is 67 percent complete, and the contractor has vowed to finish on time. Permanent power energization for 86th St. is on target for a late April date, and the contractor at 72nd St. has promised to complete the station entrances so training can begin on September 1.
In addition to key activities already behind schedule, the IEC identified areas of risk that could lead to delays over the next year. These include design and scope changes, fire alarm system testing (which you may recall was one of the reasons for the delay of 7 line extension), installation of certain power and communications systems, and personnel availability. With three new stations scheduled to go online within 8-10 weeks of each other, the IEC is concerned that Transit will not make available enough staff to ensure training and testing can be completed to accommodate a revenue service date of December. As the MTA hasn’t activated this many new stations at once in a generation, the agency is on unsure ground here, but Capital Construction says it will work with Transit to ensure staff is made available for necessary training.
Other than noting these issues, the IEC’s solution involved speeding up work and spending faster. It’s not exactly a ground-breaking suggestion, but at this point, the MTA’s wiggle room is disappearing. Things are moving forward, but it’s going to be a sprint to get to next December. The next quarterly update on the Second Ave. Subway will be published in March. If these scheduling obstacles remain, wrapping by December will be questionable at best, and history, as we all know too well, isn’t on the MTA’s side. If I were a betting man, I’d probably take the “over” on December 2016. How about you?