For nearly eight decades, the New York City Subway system has sat in stagnant. Since unification in 1940, the City has witnessed the birth of just a handful of new lines with even fewer planned. Yet, subway inertia wasn’t always the norm.

In 1929 and again in 1939, New York City planners dreamed big. Before cars came to dominate our transportation landscape, the city knew that extending the subway would truly complete the system and usher in unprecedented boom times for New York. Thus, along came the IND Second System.

Yesterday’s post on the uncompleted remnants of a Brooklyn subway stop hints at the scope of this ambitious plan. Today, we delve deeper into this vast civic undertaking. The city wanted 100 miles of new tracks connecting every borough to one another. The map at right (click to enlarge) is a work of subway art, and the plan is a beauty.

Read on for an in-depth look at the great Second System plans.

Categories : Subway History
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  • Calatrava terminal not quite dead yet · While last week I noted that the Santiago Calatrava-designed World Trade Center transportation hub may be on the chopping block, the Port Authority isn’t quite ready to give up on their ambitious plans for the downtown station. With two weeks left until he must make a series of recommendations on the PA’s downtown plans, Christopher Ward, the PA executive director, must figure out if the agency can build the Calatrava design, as The Times put it, “constructed timely and economically.”

    Considering the economy and state of transit funding in the region, the odds do not favor the Port Authority or Calatrava right now. I hope, however, that the PA pushes for this plan anyway. The last thing we need is some Penn Station monstrosity anchoring the planned downtown revival. The Calatrave project is ambitious, visually appealing and functional. In other words, it’s everything the New York City transit architecture world is missing, and to lose it now would be a shame. · (4)

What’s in a name?

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The never-completed and now-abandoned station at South 4th St. in Brooklyn should not be confused with the West 4th St. stop in Manhattan. (Photo via Etsy)

Alternately one of the more endearing or most annoying aspects of the New York City Subway system, post-unification, is the naming scheme for stations. The system has two stops in different boroughs that share the 7th Ave. designation, three stations called 86th St. and a whole bunch of Kings Highway and Ave. U stops. The list is endless, and the only way to tell them apart is by consulting a map or knowing the system’s ins and outs.

There are, of course, a few notable exceptions to the issues of dual names. The various 42nd St. stops all carry with them the designation of the nearby landmarks. We have Times Square-42nd St., 42nd St.-5th Ave./Bryan Park and 42nd St.-Grand Central. And then there is West Fourth Street and the numbered streets labeled East along the IRT White Plains Road line, specifically-named rarities in a system that largely assumes its riders know where they’re going.

This past weekend, that nomenclature was the subject of a question in The New York Times City Section’s FYI column. Asked a curious reader: “Most subway stops’ names use only the street number (42nd Street, for example). How come West Fourth Street and a few stops in the Bronx (like East 180th Street and East 149th Street) are given an east/west distinction?”

The answer:

Mainly to avoid confusion.

Herb Schonhaut, manager in New York City Transit’s Office of Station Signage, said the Fourth Street station uses the word “West” to distinguish it from the planned but unbuilt “South” Fourth Street Station in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Mr. Schonhaut added that East 180th Street (on the No. 2 and 5 lines) and East 149th Street (No. 6 line) use “East” to contrast with similar stations to the west: 180th Street/Bronx Park (which closed in 1952) and 149th Street/Grand Concourse. East 143rd Street was distinguished from 143rd Street on the Third Avenue el, which shut down in 1955.

Now, the second part of this answer, I knew. When the subways were first built, the IRT, BMT and IND lines were competing systems, and it was not until 1940 that all three systems were placed under the control of the city. The three companies followed their own naming conventions, and we are still today stuck with this relic of the past.

The first part of the answer — about South Fourth St. — was news to me, and the Waterfront Preservation Alliance of Greenpoint and Williamsburg did the heavy lifting on this intriguing station. The now-abandoned semi-station at South Fourth Street in Brooklyn was to be a part of the IND Second System, a great idea lost to the Great Depression. WGPA has more:

The proposed service to Williamsburg included two new lines: one connecting to the Sixth Avenue line and running beneath the East River from Houston Street; the second connecting to the Eighth Avenue line and running under the River from Grand Street in Manhattan (with the last stop at Columbia Street).

In Williamsburg, the north line was to run beneath Grand Street as far as Driggs, and then turn south to meet up with the second line, which was to run under Broadway and South Fourth Street (more detail here). All of this was to meet up with the Crosstown Line (aka the G train) at Broadway and South 4th. That was the South 4th Street station referred to in the Times article…From South Fourth Street, the lines continued east. In Bed Stuy, they were to branch off. The Utica Avenue would run to the south, eventually winding up in Sheepshead Bay. The Rockaway line would continue northeast along Myrtle and Central Avenues, and then turn south and run all the way to the Rockaways.

So the two Fourth Streets would have been a mere four stations apart, and the coverage of the subways between Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan would have been vastly improved. But, alas, the Second System was not to be. While some of the plans — a subway to the Rockaways, for instance — saw the light of the day, the ambitious expansion drive faltered before long, and the West Fourth St. name is a testament to an era in which the city dreamed big and came up small.

Categories : Subway History
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  • Bloomberg: ‘I don’t have a bridge to sell you’ · While selling the East River bridges to the MTA and tolling them could provide the beleaguered transportation agency with a quick fix to its economic problems and discourage Manhattan-bound traffic, the Bloomberg Administration has rejected the very practical idea. Relying on the faulty assumption that tolling these bridges would simply send more cars through the few remaining free river crossings, Mayor Bloomberg said the bridges are not for sale for the purposes of tolling them.

    Opined the mayor, “It is very impractical to only toll a couple of bridges. You would create chaos in people trying to avoid the tolled bridges.” In case after case, this theory espoused by Bloomberg has been proven false, and the city will once eschew an opportunity to help out the MTA financially. · (4)

Second Ave. Sagas wasn’t around when the MTA unveiled architectural renderings of the 96th St. rehab on the West Side IRT. But we are around today, and Curbed has a great a great illustration, above, of what the completed station will look like.

The scan is from a union trade magazine that, amusingly, predicts a future in which MTA construction projects are completed on time. But utopia New York aside, that’s a pretty sweet picture considering the disastrous state of the station in renovation right now.

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While we spent much of Tuesday discussing the controversial and brilliant idea to turn over control of the East River bridges to the MTA, not every bit of testimony from the first Ravitch Commission hearings were as sensational as that one. Yet, each idea will be given equal weight by Ravitch as he attempts to come up with some grand fix.

Over at Streetsblog, Ben Fried ran down the day’s other themes. I’ve excerpted the relevant parts:

Responsibility for adequately funding the MTA should fall on those who benefit from its services. This encompasses a fairly broad swath of people, including straphangers, the real estate industry, and car commuters (who get less traffic on the street when more people use transit)…Several people testified that some form of road pricing or bridge tolling would be an additional stream of revenue consistent with this philosophy.

The MTA needs more consistent and reliable revenue streams. Congestion pricing fits the bill in this regard, too. The need for predictable revenue also led speakers to suggest more broad-based taxes…Kevin Corbett of the Empire State Transportation Alliance recommended both road pricing and a payroll tax…

The city and state have been derelict in their contributions to the MTA, and debt financing has gone too far. [Ed. Note: I’ve covered this issue in depth over the last few months. It is a point worth repeating.]

It is reasonable, even desirable, to institute regular and predictable fare increases, but straphangers are currently shouldering too much of the burden… Through the farebox, MTA riders fund 55 percent of the agency’s operating costs, the highest share in the nation…Corbett appeared to encapsulate the general sentiment when he called for “modest and regularly scheduled [fare increases], not more than once every other year.”

The MTA must become more efficient and financially transparent. Many speakers praised the progress Lee Sander has made in streamlining the MTA, and just as many wanted to see further opportunities for efficiency identified. Two speakers, Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign and City Comptroller Bill Thompson, recommended creating an independent watchdog agency to monitor the MTA’s finances.

These suggestions clearly run the gamut from desirable (congestion pricing) to politically unfeasible (payroll taxes) to guardedly unnecessary — an independent watchdog would just add another layer of bureaucracy to an organization trying to shed unnecessary positions.

What these ideas do suggest, however, is that the MTA has options other than a fare hike that they need to explore in full. The agency big wigs would have to lobby our state legislature and city leaders to secure more funding and a congestion pricing; they could reorganize the entire MTA agency. But in the end, these ideas must be exhausted before a fare hike is instituted.

I don’t know what Ravitch’s final recommendations will look like. For the committee to be effective and for the MTA to have a chance at securing some kind of governmental approval to a controversial plan such as congestion pricing, Ravitch’s final report will have to take a strong position on one recommendation. Anything more than that will become a muddled mix of solid policy that doesn’t make for a good talking point, and the MTA would face the same issues with which the Barack Obama campaign is grappling when it comes to the economy.

But no matter the outcome, the MTA should follow up on and each every bit of testimony they hear this week. Congestion pricing may be the best outcome for the MTA and for the city, but they should explore selling the bridges and streamlining agency operations too. Every little — and big — bit helps.

Categories : MTA Economics
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  • A Quick Fix: Selling the bridges · While much of yesterday’s Ravitch Committee hearings focused around city and state contributions to the MTA, a former New York City transportation commissioner had a different suggestion. In his testimony in front of the committee, Lucius J. Riccio suggested that the city sell its bridges to the MTA for $1. The MTA would then be in charge of maintaining the bridge but could then collect tolls on all river crossings.

    This sale would both generate millions of dollars in revenue for the MTA and serve to discourage traffic into Manhattan via river-crossing tolls. Ravitch himself was less than enthusiastic about the idea, and the City Council has long resisted implementing tolls on the free East River bridges and tunnels. However, the Bloomberg Administration is amenable to this idea, and it would help solve the MTA’s financial crisis. · (18)

While Wall Street was suffering through its worse day since Sept. 2001, leading transit advocates gathered at NYU to testify on the state of the MTA’s finances. In the first Ravitch Commission hearing, leaders from all walks of New York public life stressed the need for a lifeline of money from New York City and State. The MTA, they warned, could face dire consequences if the MTA’s fiscal health is not restored.

I spent much of Monday at NYU but in classes. So I missed the hearings. Luckily, the good folks from the Tri-State Transportation Campaign were on hand to report on the testimony:

Leading transportation, environmental and labor groups warned today that New York faced major fare hikes, and cuts in transit service and vital repairs unless new City and State aid is raised to address the MTA’s “titanic” financial problems.

The warning came at the first public hearing of the State Commission on MTA Financing. The Commission – appointed by Governor David Paterson and headed by former MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch – is charged with recommending ways to meet the MTA’s financial needs over the next ten years. Its report is due out by December 5th.

In July, the MTA officially announced major operating deficits in its $6 billion operating budgets for 2009 and 2010. The deficits are caused in large part by declining tax revenues in a bad economy; rising fuel costs; and the impact of years of massive borrowing to finance badly needed repairs.

More alarming, TSTC reports, is the current state of the MTA as one of the nation’s leading debtors. At a time when the country is falling into crippling debts, the MTA is the country’s fifth leading public debtor. Only New York City and three states owe more money. Clearly, the MTA cannot remain solvent and operate a viable transit network for a region of nearly 19 million people.

“Years of borrowing as a result of the City and State’s disinvestment in mass transit are coming to a head as the price of fuel has drawn many new people to transit, with total ridership up in the last year by more than 5% on the subways. What’s more, the proposed hikes would come at a time when working and middle class New Yorkers are already struggling with a rising cost of living, and real economic hardship,” TWU President Roger Toussaint said.

Toussaint testified on Monday along with prominent activits such as Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign, Kevin Crobett of the Empire State Transportation Alliance, Robert Yaro of the Regional Plan Association and Kate Slevin of TSTC. As each organization head passed through the commission sessions, they all had the same message.

“Failure to make the necessary investments in the critical transportation infrastructure would severely hamper New York’s economic viability. We simply can’t allow this to happen,” Corbett said.

As Monday’s market crash proceeded as expected — and Tuesday promises to be no better — the MTA is certainly facing an uphill battle. New York State doesn’t have any money; New York City doesn’t have any money; and the Federal Government is too busy bailing out the country’s housing market to focus on the New York City transit network. But the ramifications for our region and for our nation are just as drastic.

Without a viable transit network, New York City will face a precipitous decline. In all sectors, the New York economy will suffer, and as we’re seeing on Wall Street, when New York suffers, the rest of the nation will suffer. It doesn’t have the cachet of a Fannie Mae or a Freddie Mac, but in its own way, more than just New Yorkers rely on the MTA.

In the end, the Ravitch Comission will probably tell the city and state to spend more money. The panel will probably recommend a congestion fee as well. And in the end, our elected officials won’t respond. As Paul S. White, head of Transportation Alternatives said, “The MTA’s problem is clear: The City and State have inadequately funded mass transit for years. The formula for funding mass transportation should be changed.”

Categories : MTA Economics
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Five months, the New York City Department of Transportation and the MTA unveiled plans for Select Bus Service along 34th Street. As part of the plans, buses would enjoy camera-enforced dedicated lanes up and down the crowded 34th Street corridor.

Well, along came David Gantt and his murder of our efforts at home rule. Gantt, as you may recall, resides in Rochester, a town with a profitable transit system (but more on that coincidence later).

Today, New York has triumphed over Gantt as DOT and the MTA launched the 34th Street bus service this morning. Streetsblog’s Brad Aaron reports:

The 34th Street route stretches from 1st to 11th Avenues, and its lanes will be enforced from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. — unlike those on the Bx12 SBS line, which are only enforced during morning and evening rush. The lanes are in effect as of today.

Sources tell Streetsblog that the city is bypassing Albany by installing stationary automated traffic cameras to keep taxis out of the lanes, but DOT would not confirm ahead of the presser. The media release says that the red SBS lanes are “the first step in a series of improvements planned to improve bus speeds and reliability” along the corridor.

I’m not quite sure how the city is able to bypass Albany. It must have something to do with the nature of stationary cameras as opposed to the plan Gantt shot down which would have allowed for cameras on buses to combat cars in the BRT lanes.

All told, this is a positive step for the city as it attempts to make public transit more efficient while discouraging driving without the benefits of a congestion fee. Until the congestion fee movement rises up again, these little steps should be applauded.

Categories : Buses
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  • Fun, fun, fun ’til the MTA takes their T-Birds away · Hot on the heels of the MetroCard scandal, the MTA is now taking away company cars from employers making more than enough money to afford their own transportation. As part of MTA CEO and Executive Director Lee Sander’s cost-cutting efforts, 59 company cars have been recalled from the field, according to The Daily News. The MTA is attempting to limit non-rider miles and gas expenditures. Perhaps, these executives and high-ranking officials can now take the subway. · (1)
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