Home Second Avenue Subway Delays, overruns again plaguing Second Ave. Subway

Delays, overruns again plaguing Second Ave. Subway

by Benjamin Kabak

A 2009 MTA slide still tells a story of delays and high costs for the Second Ave. Subway.

Nearly a year ago, the Federal Transit Authority disputed the MTA’s claims that the Second Ave. Subway would open by the end of 2016. While the FTA’s estimates had Phase 1 costs at nearly $5 billion and the opening in mid-2018 at the latest. Officially, the MTA had disputed these figured and continued to proclaim a 2016 date for the project. Now, it seems, the tide is turning for the worse.

According to a report in The Observer, the MTA is officially acknowledging the risks of delays and overruns for both the East Side Access and Second Ave. Subway projects. The details are not pretty:

By these estimates, the Second Avenue Subway is now estimated to cost $4.98 billion, another $307 million beyond the numbers the M.T.A. had been working off, with completion in February 2018, up from December 2016. East Side Access is now at $8.1 billion, up $328 million, with completion in April 2018, up from September 2016. (At the same time, the M.T.A. still says that it believes it can bring the projects in below these numbers and on its schedule.) …

All told, the situation involving East Side Access and the Second Avenue Subway tells a story that is all too frequent with giant public sector projects. The projects were approved and sold to the public with one price tag, only to see the budget prove far too insignificant (very rarely, if ever, do projects come in well below their initial projections). And once a project has started—once the foot is in the door—it becomes really difficult to pull the plug, even if the public would never have signed onto the initial price tag.

In this case, the Second Avenue Subway was initially supposed to be $4.1 billion, with completion slated for June 2014; East Side Access was budgeted at $6.3 billion, to be finished in December 2013.

With regard to these projects, M.T.A. spokesman Jeremy Soffin said the agency would work toward the existing budget, which it views as attainable. “We have a budget and a time line that we’re working toward and we plan to meet,” he said. “Both we and the F.T.A. acknowledge that here’s risk inherent in these projects.”

According to Eliot Brown, the FTA has blamed rising construction costs and poor oversight as sources for both the delays and cost increases along Second Ave. As the MTA has capital funds secured only through 2011 but significant federal contributions to this project, Phase 1 will open eventually this decade, but I have my doubts about Phase 2 and beyond. Simply put, for the MTA to earn more support for capital investment of this magnitude, these projects need to meet their deadlines and budgets. So far, these goals have been elusive ones indeed.

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Robert July 9, 2010 - 5:08 pm

This is a disgrace plain and simple. But not surprising. Ironically the MTA says even today they are going to meet the Dec 2016 date. Maybe they will give me a nice 40th bday surprise and meet the deadline date that year.

Brian July 9, 2010 - 5:24 pm

The main issue with the MTA is that they are misguided and has very little understanding of their major capital mega projects. The new South Ferry station and the ongoing Fulton Street Transit Center consruction. The general riding public is getting fed up of the MTA’s inability to not only handle their finances but their oversight.

Makes you wonder why other transit systems laugh at the MTA.

Marc Shepherd July 9, 2010 - 5:34 pm

Which other transit systems laugh at the MTA? Do you have a reference for that?

Brian July 10, 2010 - 4:01 am

Although I don’t have any references but I know due to word of mouth. I happen to know a few people who has been to LA and their system runs puts NYC’s to shame.

bob July 12, 2010 - 10:52 am

LA has had plenty of controversy and construction problems also. They gave up on building heavy rail for a while. But once a system is actually up and running all that fades into history.

Ben July 9, 2010 - 10:02 pm

There should be indictments at this point. As pointed out in previous posts for years now, there is a lack of serious effort to get the project done.

The contractors, especially the ones doing the surface work, like relocating the utilities under Second Avenue are scamming. Go to where the subway stations are to be dug, and there’s the appearance of work, but no real work for months. A few pathetic cuts in the road and sidewalks, weathering materials, a worker shuffling here and there, machinery standing idle. This was the exact picture of the Launch Box site for a couple of years, and it put the entire project in jeopardy and YEARS behind schedule. The tunnels will be finished, probably in the next two years, and at this rate the stations will never be done. Of course, they will, when the contractors have milked this thing adding years and hundreds of millions of dollars to the project. The MTA management should be fired, all of them, and the contractors investigated and sued for fraud. They are not doing the work they were contracted to do.

These are harsh words, but the stakes are high. Beijing is building 125 miles of subway in the time it’s taking us to build 2 miles. That’s right, one hundred twenty five miles of subway in the time it takes us to build two miles! Plus, it’s a much more modern and sophisticated system that includes air conditioned stations. This is beyond pathetic, and for the people who live and work along Second Avenue, the delays are costly, life altering and tragic.

Congresswoman Maloney was right to investigate the scams that were going on a couple of years ago. They have since multiplied to the stations sites. Perhaps the Attorney General should be the next to weigh in.

John July 10, 2010 - 7:24 am

I completely agree…..there is some serious lack of oversight here…The problem is in the bureacracy….this is the problem with big government…

Woody July 10, 2010 - 3:54 pm

“this is the problem with big government.” This is a religious cult’s claim? Because it’s pure bullshit.

In fact, it is not a *small* government that is building 125 miles of subways in China’s capital, and it is a Socialist government building the subways of Barcelona and Madrid.

bob July 12, 2010 - 10:40 am

Harsh words, Ben, but with few facts to back them up. You can’t tell what is going on underground from standing on the street. Having recently been inside the Launch Box, it’s a pretty impressive piece of work, and several years is not unreasonable, especially considering all the work limitations in place to please the local community – which doesn’t happen in China. If they could have worked full blast 24 hours a day it would have taken less time, and less money. But no one living nearby would have gotten a wink of sleep. If they ignored all the safety regulations things would have been faster and cost less – but people would have died. (Again, from what I’ve heard that isn’t much of a consideration in China.) Which would you prefer?

I think the bulk of the problem is on the front end: the initial estimates were far too optimistic. NY is a tough place to build, and when you start digging you usually get surprised – the records of what’s down there aren’t nearly as good as they should be. Low bid contractors generally aren’t as good quality, and when a surprise happens they have a chance to really up their income.

There could be corruption too – NYC is famous for it. But you need to show proof – these projects have lots of audits by lots of different groups, so it isn’t all that easy. In terms of efficiency, you would be amazed at the paperwork required, much of it for those audits.

So I say it isn’t that the costs have really gone up – they were underestimated in the first place. But, once this actually starts running, be it 2016 or 2018, no one will care. Does anyone mention that the new South Ferry opened late?

Jerrold July 9, 2010 - 11:00 pm

At least it is comforting to know that they are past the point of no return and the project will continue. If I were reading this article a few years ago, I would have been fearing that the project could wind up being indefinitely abandoned again, just like in the mid-1970’s.

July 10-July 12 weekend service advisories :: Second Ave. Sagas July 10, 2010 - 12:20 am

[…] « Delays, overruns again plaguing Second Ave. Subway Jul […]

tsuyoshi July 10, 2010 - 6:51 pm

I would argue that the New York transit system is the only one in the US that’s not a joke. I mean come on… have you ever tried to get around another city in this country without a car?

Even at $20 billion the Second Avenue Subway would still be worth it. I have no doubt the increased property taxes along the east side of Manhattan would more than cover the cost.

Ben July 10, 2010 - 8:07 pm

Indeed, NYC’s subway system is extensive. The folks responsible for the Second Avenue Subway could never have built what we enjoy so much today. I’m forever grateful to the folks who built the system, and that took place between 50 and 120 years ago. We’re enjoying the fruits of their labors.

We have to live in the here and now, and we are like profligate children. We’re riding the rails that our fathers built, but we can’t build our own. Other countries, big and small are building their own.

As for the technical issues about the cost of things and infrastructure. As Americans, our infrastructure is crumbling, and we don’t have the money to fix it. It’s definitely not ok to squander funds at any time. It’s preventing other projects from getting funded. As for the timeline, there’s the human toll along Second Avenue that’s tragic. Displaced people, small business people losing their life’s earnings. There is real suffering going on.

I think the Second Avenue Subway is symbolic of much of what ails this country. Two miles of subway. We can’t efficiently build two miles of subway. Look at what we’re talking about. A subway project turns into a philosophical discussion and for good reason. As a country, we’ve lost our moxie to get things done.

Meanwhile, there are cynical folks who are very effective at reaching into the public till to enrich themselves. These are the contractors and their enablers at the MTA. They should be run out of town. Somehow, we need to find our way on this Second Avenue Subway project. For fairness, to build a better city, and for our collective soul.

bob July 12, 2010 - 10:50 am

We should be grateful to those who built the existing subway system. But they worked under different conditions. They didn’t have restrictions to keep from bothering the local community. The workday was much longer, so you could build a lot more in a month or a year. Labor costs were lower (after inflation). And there were few if any safety regulations – deaths were considered acceptable.

There was a book published a few years back of construction photos from the IND. Take a look at those – what do you think the reaction from the locals would be today? Entire streets were dug up – today SAS construction is required to maintain 3 or 4 lanes of traffic at all times. That alone could easily have added at least 25% to the launch box construction.

Alon Levy July 10, 2010 - 8:29 pm

Don’t be so sure about the property tax bit. First, compare it to the amount of property taxes that Bloomberg says the 7 extension will generate, which is itself overblown. Second, the East Side is already developed, and SAS has been priced into future property value calculations.

Transit is only worth as much as it gets ridership. The name for public works built for private developer benefit is “Corporate welfare,” and is one of the few things the left-wing and right-wing thinktanks agree is bad.

Adirondacker12800 July 12, 2010 - 1:16 am

Nah, they usually call public works built for private developers “roads”

Alon Levy July 12, 2010 - 5:26 pm


Larry Littlefield July 12, 2010 - 11:02 am

“According to Eliot Brown, the FTA has blamed rising construction costs and poor oversight as sources for both the delays and cost increases along Second Ave.”

Construction costs have been falling, in some cases signficantly, since 2007 in the private sector. Why not for the MTA?

As for the delays, I have heard from the inside that they were caused in large part due to unexpected difficulties with utilities in unexpected locations — after spending years and $hundreds of millions on consultants to avoid exactly that.

Next time (if there is a next time), they should just go ahead and start digging, deal with the utilities and design as they go, and not give the consultants a dime.

Alon Levy July 12, 2010 - 11:56 am

Not doing any planning doesn’t actually give you better results.

If you want a workable but maximally spiteful solution, go for zero local content next time. Contract a company with an established track record – i.e. one that isn’t American – and let fly its own contractors in.

Peter July 12, 2010 - 10:26 pm

For those interested, I write more about the MTA’s ability to stick to timelines here on my blog.


Inside the subway station of the future :: Second Ave. Sagas July 15, 2010 - 12:53 am

[…] As the MTA’s operations budget sloughs through one of its worst crisis of in New York history, the capital budget is, if not alive and well, still ticking. With a large federal contribution behind it, the Second Ave. Subway work is chugging along, and despite a drill mishap last week that I’ll cover later today, work will be completed by some time in the future. […]

Nathanael July 19, 2010 - 5:53 pm

I still think “phase 2” will get built; it will just go really slowly.

106th St. Station can be constructed as a single project (since the tunnels are already there).

When it’s done, 116th St. Station can be constructed as a single project (since the southern tunnels are already there).

When it’s done, the pressure for a 125th St. Station will be huge. It’ll be a big project, but the sort which is really attractive to planners… so it will get built too.

Phase 3? I doubt it.

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MTA Propoganda | Stuff Nobody Cares About November 29, 2011 - 6:18 am

[…] Street to 72nd Street of the Second Avenue subway would be completed in 2016.  It is of course delayed and over budget. If they don’t run out of funds it might be completed by June […]


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