Even as Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway moves forward, the Holy Grail of New York City subway expansion plans is still inspiring those who dream of a better mass transit system for the city. Over at his excellent site vanshnookenraggen, Andrew Lynch recently unveiled his incredibly fascinating and thorough examination of the Second Ave. Subway future. I’m working with Andrew to bring parts of his series to Second Ave. Sagas, but in the meantime, his post has me taking a trip back through New York City subway planning history.
The date in 1969, two years after the Chrystie St. Cut opened, and New York City is eying another round of subway expansion. The Board of Estimate and the New York City Transit Authority are working, often at odds with each other, to develop plans for the Second Ave. Subway, forty years after the initial IND Second System fell victim to the Great Depression. The debate over the route would expose the demands of a Board trying to respond to constituent demands and a Transit Authority attempting to make the most out of its service offerings.
The newly-formed MTA’s plan for Second Ave. was a simply one. As the current plans propose, the new subway line would have headed straight down Second Ave. and south of Houston St., would have followed, in the words of Emanuel Perlmutter, “Chrystie Street, the Bowery, St. James Place, Pearl and Water Streets to a Broad Street terminus.” This route would have maximized connections with out lines as well because plans called for transfers between the SAS and the F at 2nd Ave. and the D at Grand St. The MTA alleged that 25,000 riders from the Bronx and 30,000 from Brooklyn would have taken advantage of these transfers, and from a planning perspective, the MTA would have achieved its goal of offering comprehensive service.
The politicians though did not like it one bit. Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton called it a “snobway thruway.” This train, he alleged, skirted the city’s poorer neighborhoods – called slums by reporters and politicians – and it did not provide ready transit access to those who lived in Alphabet City. Instead, in the days before the MetroCard, thousands of less well-off New Yorkers would have to continue paying double fares to take the bus from the far reaches of the East Village to the subway on Second Ave.
And so throwing money to the wind, the Board of Estimate pushed what they thought to be a better solution. Will Lisner of The Times described the change as thus: “The amended route would leave Second Avenue at 17th Street and bend east to Stuyvesant Square (near Stuyvesant Town), under 15th, 14th and 13th Streets to Avenue A, south to Essex Street along East Broadway and across Chatham Square.” This Ave. A would cost an additional $57 million, and although the Board of Estimate believed it would service 20,000 additional passengers, the MTA claimed just 3000 more riders would enter at Ave. A than if the subway were to stay on Second Ave. Furthermore, the IND transfers would be lost as well.
Eventually, after much political wrangling, the Board of Estimate and the MTA agreed to a proposal so expansive it could never see the light of the day. At a cost of $55 million more, the Second Ave. Subway would have the best of both worlds: The train would head south via Second Ave. and also include a loop to Ave. C between 14th and Houston Sts. As some transit planners called the loop a “gimmick” to save “a few blocks walk,” others hailed it as a compromise that would placate both the Board and the MTA.
Yet, by the 1974, it was not to be. Spiraling costs shelved the Second Ave. Subway to at least 1986, and today, as I wrote in September, that tea-cup shaped Alphabet City loop, while the darling of subway dreamers, just isn’t meant to be.