Home Public Transit Policy Searching for political will for subway expansion

Searching for political will for subway expansion

by Benjamin Kabak

For a few pieces that I’m readying for next week, I’ve delved into the political history of numerous subway expansion efforts. Most resemble the failed Staten Island subway plans in that the Transit Authority proposes an extension, the Board of Estimates approves the program, the Mayor signs it into law and then, nothing. The money isn’t there; the cost estimates skyrocket. Something gets in the way, and that something is a failure of leadership.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a few foolhardy men who believed they can change the city used their positions of power and influence to secure lucrative contracts that allowed them to build and operate the first subway systems. The Interborough Rapid Transit company gained its premiere spot through some officially-sanctioned monopolies and eventually accepted the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit as a competitor. The men behind these private companies were out to turn a profit, and they did so by driving workers who built the subway hard and pushing the city for high payments for expansion plans.

In the 1920s, in response to both the financial successes of the IRT and BMT and the overcrowded subways, Mayor John Hylan proposed a city-owned and operated competitor. Thus, the Independent Subway System, one of the most overbuilt subway systems in the world, was born. As the city’s Board of Estimates artificially deflated the fare for political gain, the subway companies faltered financially, and the city eventually assumed control of all three in a grand unification scheme. The IND Crosstown line — today’s G train — opened in 1937, and after that, the pace of subway expansion in New York City slowed considerably.

After unification, parts of subway routes in the outer boroughs with some connections into Manhattan would open, and the Chrystie St. Connection in 1967 involved a massive undertaking. These snippets of subway routes were originally proposed as part of the ambitious Second System, but sapped of money by the Great Depression and political will by the bad guy in our tale, most of that system hasn’t seen the light of day.

Today, there are glaring holes in subway service. Some train lines end, built with expansions in mind, have been stuck at their terminals for 80 years. Other major landmarks — such as the city’s airports — remain frustratingly out of reach of a one-seat ride to Manhattan. Still other parts of the city once slated for subway access — the Sheephead Bays and Eastern Queens of the Big Apple — remain disconnected. It is for lack of trying.

As Robert Moses built out the city’s roads throughout the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, subway construction took a back seat to the automobile. Moses didn’t allow space for a train connection to what was then Idlewild Airport as he built various highways out to the airport. He foreclosed the Verrazano Bridge to an eventual rail connection by engineering a grade too steep for the city’s subways. He pushed aside proposals to fund transit and would have nothing of expansion plans.

Today, the irony is that the subways need a Robert Moses. They need a big dreamer with the proper political clout to push through major projects. Nearly two and a half years ago, then-MTA head Elliot Sander proposed an ambitious 40-year plan that included the circumferential subway, cross-Bronx routings and an expansive Second Ave. Subway. It was a new Second System, and it remained a dream on paper.

Sander didn’t have the political influence to garner much support for his plan, and he was out at the MTA by the middle of 2009. His replacement Jay Walder is more focused on the technological innovation of transit and is trying to, amidst an ongoing budget crisis, bring a modern sense and sensibility to the MTA and New York City Transit. Beyond the projects already in progress, Walder hasn’t paid much lip service to a growth plan.

So we wait until a transit champion comes along. It won’t be any time soon, but an ambitious plan to invest in the subways and expand the tracks eastward, southward, westward could stimulate the construction economy and provide an opportunity for growth in a crowded city. Who will one day be that leader?

You may also like


Scott E September 3, 2010 - 7:54 am

Mayor John Hylan proposed a city-owned and operated competitor. Thus, the Independent Subway System, one of the most overbuilt subway systems in the world, was born.

How ironic that the man who brought about this big subway expansion has his namesake Boulevard in the borough of …. Staten Island.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines September 3, 2010 - 9:05 am

[…] Will NYC Ever Muscle Through More Subway Expansions? (2nd Ave Sagas) […]

Today’s Headlines « NYC September 3, 2010 - 9:24 am

[…] Will NYC Ever Muscle Through More Subway Expansions? (2nd Ave Sagas) […]

Larry Littlefield September 3, 2010 - 9:29 am

If the MTA actually completes East Side Access, the Flushing Extension, and the Second Avenue Subway from 63rd Street to 125th Street, I will be both pleased an amazed.

In short order the burden of senior citizens will suck up all available money. The MTA should be working faster to do as much as it can before this nationwide fiscal armageddon. The next opportunity to really do anything won’t come until Generation Greed has died off.

Christopher September 3, 2010 - 10:03 am

And then will come the children of the baby boomers, gen y, which is even bigger. Not that at all agree with your assessment — only minor edits, plus a slightly more progressive tax systems — including taxing higher incomes — would fix our problems.

Oh and let’s cut defense spending down to normal levels, please?

AlexB September 3, 2010 - 10:32 am

I think it goes beyond political will. Politicians can say whatever they want, but if the money isn’t there, nothing will get built. Moses built a huge highway network, but we can’t even maintain it. I would like to think all we need is a Moses-like figure, but I think the government simply has too many other things to deal with. Medicare, Medicaid, pension systems, Social Security, wars, etc. The states are only responsible for Medicaid and pensions, but those alone are bankrupting New York. When you add in the array of other expenses New York state has to deal with such as subsidized housing and environmental cleanup and you combine that with a declining tax base upstate, it doesn’t paint a very rosy picture.

It doesn’t help that our modern day aristocracy is dominated by the legal and financial elite. In New York, those people tend to be liberal. A liberal politician-lawyer is more likely to see the benefit in subsidized housing than a new subway, even though a great transportation network, by its very nature, creates lower cost housing.

Most of these costs did not exist 50 years ago when Chrystie St was developed. The SAS, THE/ARC and ESA are all being built, but they will consume many resources in their debt payments. Hopefully, these projects will form the high speed and high capacity backbone of a new network. The next phases, hopefully, will involve light rail and BRT lines crisscrossing the boroughs at high speeds for relatively low costs. The MTA and the region will need to come up with tons of extra money if they want to grow the network and make all their debt payments they have accumulated from the last 25 years of subway reconstruction.

It’s hard to imagine the MTA building new high cost subway expansions such as a Utica Ave subway in Brooklyn, an extension of the SAS to 3rd Ave in the Bronx, a downtown LIRR extension, or a circumferential subway line in this financial environment unless the money fairy shows up (massive federal government investment in urban transit). Maybe a Robert Moses of the subways will come along and find a way, but it’s highly unlikely.

petey September 3, 2010 - 5:25 pm

“It doesn’t help that our modern day aristocracy is dominated by the legal and financial elite. In New York, those people tend to be liberal.”

you’ve been brainwashed.

Peter September 3, 2010 - 10:58 am

The IND, serving the west side of Manhattan and then out Queens Blvd., practically duplicated existing transit service and thus never lived up to the benefits provided by earlier subway lines that opened up entire sections of the city to fast convenient mass transt. Running through already-developed neighborhoods, the IND didn’t spur development like the IRT & BMT before it, and it only further hobbled the already-crippled LIRR, by taking away local Queens ridership.

Transit development in the IRT-BMT era promoted economic, civic and social growth citywide, by allowing modern commercial & residential development, emptying slums and providing service to newly-developed neighborhoods, spurring growth across the city. Contemporary transit expansion is being done piecemeal, seeking only to benefit discrete developments, projects or facilities, rather than comprehensive development of an integrated system serving the whole city and region. The Port Authority spends billions to create a theme-park scaled JFK line that doesnt offer a real connection to Midtown; the City funds – barely – NYCT’s the Flushing extension serving only development of a few blocks in west midtown; NJ Transit and LIRR build two separate lines going “to” GCT and NYP, but neither really go to either of those places, and despite coming within blocks of each other, don’t connect; the Second Ave Subway is a greatly belated down payment on a 90-year-deferred plan, being built with only two instead of four tracks, a foolish economy that will hamper operation of that line forever.

What parts of the city need modern transit service, and how could it be integrated into the rest of the existing infrastructure that has been created over the last 175 years? How about a real line between JFK Airport and Midtown? The Right-of-Way of the ex-LIRR Rego Park – Rockaway Line still exists, but local politicians pandering to NIMBYs have for decades refused to consider upgrading it. Perhaps a line to better serve south Sunnyside, west Maspeth, Ridgewood, Glendale and that large lineless swath in the middle of the Subway Map south of the Queens Blvd.IND and north of the Jamaica BMT – ? That would be the LIRR Montauk Line, running from mere yards away from the #7 and G trains in Long Island City all the way to Jamaica, and intersecting the Rego Park line as well. The Bayridge Freight branch crosses every single subway line in Brooklyn, and the Canarsie and Sea Beach lines even share parts of the below-grade Right-of-Way, but instead of upgrading that transportation asset to serve all the neighborhoods it traverses and spurring modern, efficient mixed-use development of the air rights above it, it, like the Montauk Branch, remains the territory of plodding freight trains, serving NYC’s dwindling industrial economy.

These neighborhoods will inevitably be developed with higher density construction, but it remains to be seen whether the development will benefit from modern mass transit, or yoked to automobile-based transport.

Nathanael September 5, 2010 - 9:51 pm


1 — Grand Central/Penn Station interconnection. Would have cost less than NJT’s insane 34th St. station plan, and would have actually *saved money* on operating costs while allowing for greater throughput. Berlin did it, Paris did it, Philadelphia did it, London did it north-south and is now doing it east-west, New York did it once and needs to do it again.
While we’re at it, how about standardizing the power supply for all the commuter railroads? No, I guess this state can’t do that either.

2 — Second Avenue Subway as planned. Yeeargh.
3 — Another Queens line. Yeeargh.

Walder has the right idea, though: operations at the MTA are also obsolete and need a major upgrade. Where’s the attitude that got us one-class subway cars and turnstiles in place of fare collectors and two classes of carriage on the IRT? How about the attitude which got all-steel cars, or the one which got the BMT “wider” cars?

This is the attitude which *should* be leading to OPTO and cab signalling on the subways, 25kv overhead and turnstiles on the commuter rails (London’s commuter rails have turnstiles at major stations… saves on ticket checking…), and universal wheelchair access and countdown clocks. *This* is not happening either.

There’s some sort of failure to deliver. Is it due to political will? Bureaucratic competence? Obsolete contracting laws? Local graft?

I don’t know — but clearly it’s partly political will, based on the way the state and city governments have been starving the MTA of funds.

Alon Levy September 5, 2010 - 10:32 pm

There’s no need for any commuter railroad less crowded than the Paris RER to have turnstiles. Proof-of-payment works fine throughout the German-speaking world.

There’s also no need to unify the electrification systems. It’s much more expensive to reelectrify than to use dual-voltage trains. Replacing the full NEC with 25 kV would do a great deal of good for global high-speed rail compatibility and (slightly) boost train performance, but the rest could be done more cheaply with trains that can run on multiple electrification systems, like the M8s.

Nathanael September 7, 2010 - 2:51 pm

The Hudson Line needs to be equipped with overhead 25kV for high-speed intercity operation *anyway*. AC is cheaper to build and maintain for long-distance runs (due to fewer substations) than DC. Top-running third rail (as on LIRR) is badly subject to leaves in the autumn and ice in the winter. Maintaining duplicate electrification systems in Penn Station is ridiculous. Under-running third rail is virtually unique in the world and must be custom-manufactured….

When you add it all up, the logical thing to do would be to buy multisystem equipment now (not being done, more money is being sunk into one-system equipment) and to replace third rail DC with overhead AC on a rolling schedule as it requires renewal (not being done either of course).

Regarding turnstiles, fundamentally POP works in Germany — even in the subways — due to much more draconian social attitudes towards farebeaters. In countries where farebeaters *don’t* get grabbed and harassed by other commuters, there’s usually a breakeven point (in numbers of passengers) after which they become worthwhile. In the UK, the result is that turnstiles exist at major stations and not at minor ones, making for a mixed system of ticket checking (a partly open, partly closed system — amazing! We couldn’t possibly do that here, could we!)

Alon Levy September 7, 2010 - 6:51 pm

There’s no way for other commuters in Germany to actually know that you dodge the fare. Most people have unlimited monthly cards; they just board the bus or the train, as if they didn’t pay. The only way to know that someone is dodging the fare is if there’s a fare inspection.

The breakeven point for turnstiles is fairly high. The NYC Subway is north of it, but the commuter rail system isn’t, not yet.

As for electrification: yes, it sucks that it has to be unique. It’s not nearly as big of a deal as you make it to be. Under-running third rail has not increased the cost of Metro-North’s cars above the cost of the LIRR’s. Voltage issues are a bigger cost generator, but the local voltages other than 11 kV all exist in Europe and Japan, and the vendors have learned to make equipment that can be easily modified for different voltages.

Skip Skipson September 3, 2010 - 11:00 am

So we wait until a transit champion comes along. It won’t be any time soon, but an ambitious plan to invest in the subways and expand the tracks eastward, southward, westward could stimulate the construction economy and provide an opportunity for growth in a crowded city. Who will one day be that leader?

Lamentations from the Book of Kabak. 1:1


Public transit investment paces job creation :: Second Ave. Sagas September 3, 2010 - 12:26 pm

[…] « Searching for political will for subway expansion Sep […]

Larry Littlefield September 3, 2010 - 12:53 pm

Instead of wishing for subways to Staten Island, advocates for the system should be working to fight resigned consent to abandoning projects already underway.

As I said, if we get the Flushing Extension, East Side Access, and the top half of the Second Avenue Subway, it would solve our biggest deficiencies, and delivery on the biggest promises of 1968, when the MTA was formed.

Beyond that, we will be lucky to maintain the system and, occasionally, make small improvements such as the Bleeker/Broadway Nassau pedestrian connection. And even that is only if one of the bridge the MTA relies on (ie. the Manhattan) doesn’t re-fail.

There are a few little deals that could be done anywhere else but here. Unused turouts at 74th and Roosevelt, part of the IND second system, could be used to create a new terminal someplace south of the station of the G. What is now the M could then be shifted to the express track at 74th and Roosevelt, given the capacity afforded by CBTC, providing three express trains and two locals from that point forward.

Rather than building the Nostrand Avenue Subway, perhaps the MTA could (for 1/1000 of the cost) build a few large bike garages in the area.

Kevin Walsh September 3, 2010 - 1:10 pm

Hahahaha! Develop the LIRR Montauk and Bay Ridge ROWs for light rail or heavy rail mass transit? If you believe the neighborhood folks, riff raff and criminals use mass transit. None of that crap in our neighborhoods, no-sirreee! That’s why you’ll never see rail transit in the Glendales, Baysides, Marine Parks etc.

Cars are king and always will be. It’s been assured now by cutting buses and LIRR service and raising transit fares thru the roof.

Tim September 3, 2010 - 1:47 pm

Riff raff on the subways? I guess that’s what all those well-dressed folks on their way to wall st from the UES/UWS are.

That Nimbyism reminds me of Atlanta, where Cobb County refused to support MARTA and have any access to rail transit because they didn’t want the crime from the AA areas spreading 20 miles out to their burgh.

Besides, last I checked those areas weren’t exactly as expensive as, say anywhere in manhattan south of 96th.

Christina September 3, 2010 - 2:36 pm

A neighborhood doesn’t have to be expensive to be a great place to live and raise a family. The problem is not so much wanting the riff-raff to stay out (although it does accomplish that fairly well) but to avoid overdevelopment, which will invariably happen if there is an excuse such as a new rail line. These are communities that screamed out for downzoning. They certainly are not going to want more people flooding their towns with the coming of a new rail line.

As for the JFK Rail Link, that has been on the back burner for years.

Bolwerk September 4, 2010 - 12:42 pm

Every single (white) person I have ever met from Atlanta or its suburbs has, with a touch of perverse glee, regaled me with the joke, what does MARTA stand for?

(The answer: Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta.)

Alon Levy September 5, 2010 - 3:44 am

The only two people I know from the Atlanta area – both white, one from the city and one from Cobb County – have attacked MARTA for being inadequate, but not for being just for blacks. The person from Atlanta held his hands in a cross shape and said “This is the map of MARTA,” and complained that the stations are inaccessible by pedestrians. The person from the suburbs complained that it’s only used for driving to a park-and-ride and going to the airport, and said it’s stupid to drive to public transportation.

Think twice September 3, 2010 - 2:28 pm

I disagree about Marine Park. I live there and everyone I know would *love* to never have to wait on a curb for the B2, B31, B44, BM4, etc to get to the city. The end of the two-fare zone in ’97 made Marine Park more affordable and accessible, but didn’t diminish the quality of life at all.

If tomorrow they announced that the Nostrand Line was to be extended down Flatbush to Kings Plaza or down Nostrand to Kingsborough CC, then there would be just as many yeas as nays. And in the back ground—and most of all—the real estate interests (landlords, property owners, agents, brokers) would be creaming over at the though of their assets significantly appreciating in value. The real estate buzz over the rerouting of the M is just a taste of what’s possible in this city.

Christina September 4, 2010 - 6:01 am

Of course there was a real estate buzz over the rerouting of the M. It certainly doesn’t help those people in Middle Village and Glendale who work in the financial sector, though. Let’s chase out the stable folks with white collar jobs so we can bring in more lower earning renters and absentee landlords who will push to upzone the area. This is back-door blockbusting.

Al D September 7, 2010 - 9:26 am

The real estate buzz in Bushwick existed well before the M was re-routed. It’s the L that’s the draw. It provides direct access to Williamsburg, LES, and Union Sq which, if you put this in reverse, is the direction the hipster/artist crowd has moved to find affordable housing. There’s a great piece in NY Mag from a few years ago now called L-ification which pretty much sums things up.

Mike September 3, 2010 - 4:33 pm

though it would never happen – one idea I would love to see implemented in the future are short subway lines (similar to the S) running across several lines. mostly, it would prevent a lot of “roundabout-ing” that riders face currently.

for example – and I’m just spitballing here, I’m looking at the current subway map of Brooklyn as a reference – something like a a line running from the 2/5 Flatbush station to the B/Q Avenue H station, straight down to the R Bay Ridge station.

Alon Levy September 3, 2010 - 4:50 pm

You mean something like this?

Bolwerk September 4, 2010 - 12:47 pm

Not exactly sure what the logistics are, but isn’t it a little worrisome to stunt our freight network? There’s a good chance we’re going to need it in coming decades.

Alon Levy September 4, 2010 - 6:59 pm

It’s not going to stunt the freight network. The Triboro RX would run on dedicated track in the same ROW; there’s ample room for it on nearly the entire corridor. It cannot share tracks with freight. The only place where this would force freight rail to share tracks with passenger rail is Hell Gate Bridge, where the projections call for 14 freight trains per day once the Brooklyn-Jersey City tunnel opens. 14 trains per day could easily be done on the same tracks as Amtrak and future commuter rail service, leaving two tracks on the bridge for local rapid transit.

Bolwerk September 5, 2010 - 3:05 am

Even if that’s so, it likely will mean expensive grade separation. However, I (mistakenly?) got the impression the proposal was about converting the ROW.

Alon Levy September 5, 2010 - 3:42 am

The line is already fully grade-separated.

The proposal was about installing two new passenger tracks on the ROW for passenger service in Brooklyn and Queens, then going on the Hell Gate Bridge, through the unused St. Mary’s Tunnel, and through a short greenfield tunnel from Melrose Station to Yankee Stadium.

Mike September 4, 2010 - 12:49 pm

that’s sort of what I was talking about. though I think doing it within boroughs would be a good first step, before a trans-borough line.

Alon Levy September 3, 2010 - 4:50 pm

Ben, on The Transport Politic, Yonah just described Paris’s ambitious suburban subway plans, involving about 80 miles of tunnel. The total projected cost of the plan is about 15% more than what New York is spending right now on SAS, the 7 extension, ESA, and ARC.

The problem is not ambition. Anyone can draw fantasy maps. And it’s not political will: American cities, including New York, put up with transit lines so cost-ineffective they would never see the light of day abroad. It’s just cost.

Take all the lines that have been mentioned on this thread – the full SAS, Utica, Nostrand, 3rd; passenger service on Triboro RX and Lower Montauk – and altogether they’d cost about $10 billion if New York could build subways for the same cost as the rest of the developed world.

Nathanael September 5, 2010 - 9:54 pm

Well, part of it is that utilities aren’t where they’re supposed to be. London and Paris have very extensive and accurate maps of such things now; NY apparently not so much.

Part of it is the US/UK “contracting overhead” due to refusal to do anything in-house. The UK also spends much more than other countries on comparable projects.

Part of it is very definitely political, and relates to poor governmental structure in the NYC area. Anyone who read the “Access to the Region’s Core” analyses concluded that they pointed inexorably towards a tunnelled track connection between Penn Station and Grand Central Lower Level. This was rejected on vague and meaningless grounds; speculation has it that it was institutional turf wars.

Alon Levy September 6, 2010 - 1:02 am

Nathanael, you should distinguish between contractor and consultant problems. In the US and UK, there’s a lot of consultant creep, because of the belief that private consultants reduce costs, which they don’t. Contracting overhead is a completely different problem. In this magnitude it’s unique to New York, whose infrastructure specs are so byzantine they turn off every contractor competent enough to get private sector work.

Writing about the technical success of MetroSur, which was built fully underground for about $55 million per km, Madrid Metro CEO Manuel Melis Maynar talks in length about the selection of contractors. He also explains that the engineering was done in-house, but mentions that separately, and seems to emphasize the contracting more.

I know of exactly one cost escalation in New York coming from engineering decisions: the decision to build the 7 extension with 8 blocks of tail tracks. The other budget busters are either about contractors overcharging by a factor of 5, or agency turf battles.

Nathanael September 7, 2010 - 2:54 pm

Thanks, I’ll try to distinguish between the two (contractor problems and consultant problems) in future!

I’ve heard in other contexts that consultants usually get hired to do one of two things:
1) Give good advice which will be ignored.
2) Tell the company hiring the consultant to do what it already wanted to do.

It’s rare for a consultant to actually be consulted, though it does happen.


Leave a Comment