Work continues below ground along Second Ave., but is the SAS a true megaproject? (Source: MTA Presentation to CB8, Nov. 30, 2009)
The Second Ave. Subway is not a megaproject. Phase I, the current line under construction, is a 30-block extension of a preexisting subway line that will cost nearly $4.5 billion and take nearly a decade of continual construction to complete. Then, the MTA will have to go back to the drawing board to fund and build Phases II, III and IV. Maybe by the mid-2020s, a subway line will span the entire north-south reach of Second Ave.
For the residents of Second Ave., local subway construction is a nuisance. Station entrances and unsightly ventilation structures make this project seem larger than it is, and a walk along Second Ave. does nothing to dispel the notion that building even part of a subway line is a major undertaking. Yet, the initial investment is small compared to true megaprojects, and the piecemeal approach makes for a project of good size in New York City. That, though, is because the city no longer builds much on a grand scale. Do we actually miss Robert Moses? Do we need someone to wield Moses-like power? Or are we doomed to a century of big-but-mega projects that run over budget and take to long to complete?
In The Times this weekend, Louis Uchitelle explored the end of the megaproject in the United States. With the Big Dig finished, no one is building a truly massive public work. As rapid transit goes, streetcars are the wave of the future. Elsewhere, the Metro in Washington, D.C., finished up earlier this decade, and the last major BART expansion in the Bay Area wrapped in 1997. Uchitelle — who notes that construction along Second Ave. “proceeds unhurriedly” — views this dearth of megaprojects through the prism of the economy:
So what are we missing, exactly? Huge public works — or more precisely, their historic absence — didn’t cause the recession any more than their renewal would quickly draw the country out of it. But their effect on the economy is almost always noticeable if not easily measured. Some economists argue that the continual construction of new megaprojects adds a quarter of a percentage point or more, on average, to the gross domestic product over the long term. Again, cause and effect aren’t clear, but the strongest periods of economic growth in America have generally coincided with big outlays for new public works and the transformations they bring once completed.
If their absence creates a void, particularly in a recession, what can fill it?
His answer is a stimulus focused around megaprojects. He sees a country with high-speed rail stretching from coast to coast and with cities building again. Jebediah Reed at the Infrastructurist is pondered this very question. Why hasn’t America, without a Moses to dictate and bulldoze, to unnecessarily plow over homes, parks and neighborhoods, learned to build megaprojects? New York, in particular, is afraid of putting too much development power in the hands of one person. As the response to the Empire State Development Corporation shows, nearly fifty years after Moses’ reign of terror ended, we as a city still do not trust those who seek to build unilaterally.
But on the Upper East Side, though, we see the extreme response to decades of Moses’ centralized power. We see a project that might suffer from too much community involvement and definitely suffers from a lack of political leadership. Even Phase I, a rather meek northward extension of the Q line, still needs $1.5 billion in funding, and most New Yorkers think that it will open when it opens whenever that might be.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, but the original IRT line opened in just four and a half years. The city might have been far emptier and less built up than it is today, but things got done. What has happened to those great megaprojects and the drive and political will to build them?