Home Second Avenue Subway Foreshadowing a Second Ave. demise

Foreshadowing a Second Ave. demise

by Benjamin Kabak

There’s just something about the Second Ave. subway that begs an recession. Months after the city originally proposed the oft-delayed line, the Great Depression hit. When construction resumed again in the mid-1970s, all was moving along slowly until the city teetered on the brink of financial collapse in 1975, and the MTA ran out of money for the project.

Here we are in 2009, again in the midst of a deep recession and again the city and its transit authority is attempting to build the Second Ave. subway. For a few years in the early ’00s, things seemed to be sailing along. The Federal Government was guaranteeing the vast majority of the funding for the project, and an rosy economy seemed to ensure that at least some of the project — Phase I from 57th St. and 7th Ave. to 96th St. and 2nd Ave. — would see the proverbial light of deal. But with the opening date already postponed from 2012 to 2015, economic storm clouds are once again gathering.

In an article in Crain’s that explores how business along Second Ave. is suffering due to the ongoing construction, Kira Bindrim hints at some fiscal troubles ahead for the seemingly cursed subway line. She writes:

The city is preparing to break ground on the stretch from East 68th to East 73rd streets. Construction is currently moving in three-month intervals on alternate sides of the avenue, and Phase I is slated to be finished in 2015. But three months has become six months in some locations, and work between East 83rd and East 86th streets could be stalled by lawsuits over displaced residents. The MTA has funding for contracts through year-end, but additional money must come from its next capital plan. Prospects for that budget are grim.

Indeed, economic crises have derailed the line’s building twice, in 1929 and in the 1970s. The completion date for the $3.8 billion Phase I has been postponed two years. “I’m afraid they’re going to run out of cash,” Mr. Pecora says. “We might be faced with just a hole in the road.”

In reality, based on what we’ve learned in the past, this dire report isn’t quite true. With the Feds kicking in so much money for this project, Phase I will, at some point, become a reality. Considering that a tunnel running north of 96th St. already exists, there’s a good chance that Phase II — the extension north to 125th St. — will see the light of the day sometime over the next fifteen years.

Beyond that, though, it’s anyone’s guess. The economy will rebound, and President Obama should promote a stimulus plan now that includes significant investments in mass transit and public transportation. That, as Streetsblog noted last week, hasn’t been so quick in the making. Maybe one day, New York will finally enjoy a Second Ave. subway running the length of Manhattan, but for now, with history as our guide, everyone is holding their collective breaths.

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Postscript: The Crain’s article linked above covers some familiar ground. For nearly 18 months now, business owners have complained about the disruptions along Second Ave. That is simply the cost of progress, and while the government and the MTA should do what they can to mitigate the disruptions, if New York is to progress as a city, we need to build subway lines. As The Overhead Wire noted last week, in the London area, land values around planned future Tube stops has risen significantly, and when all is said and done, the SAS will have a material benefit on the East Side housing market. The disruptions today are the cost of a better future tomorrow.

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Joe G January 26, 2009 - 6:10 am

I am much less sanguine than you even regarding phase 1. City still needs a few billion just for that, and NYC finances are not getting better, indeed will be getting worse next 12-24 months. Worse still, it’s unclear what, if any, fed dollars could be coming to this. Perfect bad storm.

kynes January 26, 2009 - 8:11 am

Shanghai built an entire subway system in less then 10 years. There is no excuse for this.

Alon Levy January 27, 2009 - 12:22 am

Shanghai built its subway system during a period of sustained 12% annual growth. When the economy is growing so fast, the government needs to spend less to maintain the present quality of life, so it has more money for capital projects. Even then, Shanghai’s subway system is growing unusually quickly even by Chinese standards; the growth of the Beijing subway is a lot more modest.

In addition, China, especially Shanghai, is extremely gung-ho about impressive infrastructure projects, regardless of how useful they are, or how well they can be maintained or how much sense they make. For example, the transfers in Shanghai are terrible, requiring hundreds of meters of walking between lines. The only places in New York that have such difficult transfers are the Port Authority/Times Square connection, the 6th/7th Avenue connection at 14th, and the Ely/Court Square transfer.

Phil January 26, 2009 - 8:41 am

I have a feeling this is going to get built. People will lose faith in the MTA all together if it fails, if they haven’t done that yet that is.

rhywun January 26, 2009 - 8:51 am

The MTA is hardly the only organization to blame if/when it doesn’t get built. It goes all the way to the top.

Marc Shepherd January 26, 2009 - 11:23 am

The problem with the SAS (or any new line) is that it takes well over a decade to complete, and there is a 100% probability that there’ll be some kind of economic downturn during that time.

Things Seen on City Sidewalks - City Room Blog - NYTimes.com January 26, 2009 - 2:46 pm

[…] Will the Second Ave. subway ever be built? [2nd Ave. […]

Johnny January 26, 2009 - 4:26 pm

The current version of the House stimulus package has an extra $9 billion for capital projects for mass transit. It would go out according to the existing formulas, which would mean $1.5-2.0 billion extra for MTA capital projects. Thats at least a pretty good help.

Marc January 26, 2009 - 4:56 pm

Crain’s has a great slide show – showing the mess that is construction

rhywun January 26, 2009 - 5:58 pm

Aren’t they required to provide access to these shops during construction? Or are the owners using the usual “carriage trade” complaint? (That is, pretending that all their business comes from drivers.)

Andy January 26, 2009 - 5:08 pm

Of the $9B in the house stimulus – here is how it breaks out – doesnt seem so rosy for MTA capital projects:


Transit ($9 billion total): $1 billion for Capital Investment Grants for new commuter rail or other light rail systems to increase public use of mass transit and to speed projects already in construction.

$2 billion to modernize existing transit systems, including renovations to stations, security systems, computers, equipment, structures, signals, and communications. Funds will be distributed through the existing formula.

$6 billion to purchase buses and equipment needed to increase public transportation and improve intermodal and transit facilities.

Benjamin Kabak January 26, 2009 - 5:17 pm

There are currently a few key amendments being drawn up that would ensure more money for capital projects and more money for operations costs in the stimulus. The Streetsblog Network has seen a few back and forths about them today, and if I have some time, I’ll try to update the status of the stimulus as it would impact New York.

They’re going to need more funds than just that though to see this entire project through.

herenthere January 27, 2009 - 12:07 am

How about I sue the people who are suing the MTA for stupidity and costing us more money.

Benjamin Kabak January 27, 2009 - 12:07 am

This was rather random….

A Train Through the Core of the Apple » trainjotting.com January 28, 2009 - 10:49 am

[…] to imagine something of this magnitude coming together in any economy, much less a miserable one. Full-scale rail projects in Manhattan can sometimes take almost a century to come together, if they come together at […]

Park replacement costs skyrocket | River Avenue Blues January 28, 2009 - 11:30 am

[…] countless other city projects. Along Second Ave., the long-awaited Second Ave. Subway has run into countless delays and budget problems, the Atlantic Yards and Hudson Yards projects are a mess, and even the Fulton St. Hub, part of the […]


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