Home Brooklyn A history of futility for Utica, Nostrand extension plans

A history of futility for Utica, Nostrand extension plans

by Benjamin Kabak

The proposed Second System subway expansion plans issued in 1929 called for subway lines down Nostrand and Utica Aves.

In the annals of New York City subway history, the Second Ave. Subway carries with it the grand stigma of futility. First proposed in 1920, the SAS went through various iterations, groundbreakings and funding crises before the current construction efforts relaunched in 1995. Barring an economic catastrophe, at least Phase 1 of the Second Ave. line will open before the end of the decade, and the Second Ave. Subway will pass from myth to reality.

Elsewhere, though, other subway expansion plans have languished for nearly as long as the Second Ave. Subway. While none of these plans have as tortured a history as the future T line does, many of them are common-sense system expansions that have been on and off the city’s transit table since the early days of New York’s subway system. Take, for instance, the Marine Park-Sheepshead Bay-Gerritsen Beach area.

Although Brooklyn’s subway service is nearly as comprehensive as Manhattan’s, a glance at the borough map reveals a large gap in service in the southern reaches of eastern Brooklyn. The Marine Park-Sheepshead Bay-Gerritsen Beach triangle is serviced only by the B and Q along Flatbush Ave. to the west and a bunch of local buses. To the north, the Flatbush Ave./Brooklyn College stop serves as a terminal for the 2 and 5 trains, and with Nostrand Ave. running south from that station, that road would serve as the natural starting point for new service.

In fact, that’s long been the dream of city planners, and that final stop on the 2 and 5 wasn’t built as such. Rather, it was supposed to lead into the Nostrand Ave. subway line. Talk of the Nostrand and Utica Ave. subway extensions pop up as early as 1910 when The Times discusses future expansion of the young system into Brooklyn. A century ago, planners anticipated a branch of the subway running out to the ocean, and the IRT awarded its Brooklyn expansion plans in two contracts. Only the first part saw the light of day, and when Flatbush Ave./Brooklyn College opened in 1920, no one knew this station would become the de facto terminal for the IRT.

In 1929, when the city unveiled its ambitious Second System proposal, both Nostrand and Utica Ave. extensions were included. The Nostrand spur would have completed the IRT’s early 1910 plans for subway expansion, and the Utica Ave. route would have been the southern part of the new Williamsburg train lines. A 1939 post-Depression version of the Second System had the Utica Ave. line reaching Floyd Bennett Field.

The 1939 plans for subway service to Floyd Bennett Field.

As we know from the history of the Second Ave. subway, though, a World War interrupted the city’s ambitious expansion plans, and the Nostrand and Utica subway lines were once again shelved for nearly 15 years. As the mid-1950s dawned and the city looked to build the Second Ave. line, so too did it give approval for the Nostrand and Utica Avenue extension plans. The Nostrand spur would again see what we now call the 2 and 5 extended south while the Utica Avenue plans were scaled back. Instead of a new line coming south from Williamsburg, the 1950s plan called for a spur from what is today the end of the 4 line in Brooklyn. The extensions were estimated to cost $82.15 million — or around $656 million in today’s money — and be ready for service by 1960.

A proposed rendering from 1969 of the Utica and Nostrand Avenue subway expansion plans.

But the city’s debt and deferred system maintenance led to a different reality. By 1957, it was clear that the two subway lines in Brooklynwould not see the light of day, and as transportation money went to modernization instead of growth, the plans laid dormant for another ten years. In 1968, the city again approved a massive subway expansion plan that included the Nostrand and Utica Avenue lines, and again, the city’s financial situation would intervene. Over the next three years, the bond request that would fund these expansion plans became a hot political issue. The city and state had no money, and many transit watchers did not believe the price tags for the capital plans were accurate. With Theodore Kheel, a current advocate for free transit, banging the financial drum, voters turned down the transportation bond request, and although another bill would pass a few years later, the Nostrand and Utica Avenue subways died in 1971.

On March 21, 1971, The Times penned a requiem for these plans. City planners thought the Utica Ave. routing would lead to even more overcrowding on the already-stuffed IRT lines and wanted to extend the Canarsie BMT — today’s L train — instead. The price tags for the two projects had reached $350 million in 1971 or $1.8 billion today, and no one believed that estimate to be accurate. These concerns still ring true today, and when Kheel attained his victory in the early 1970s, the Nostrand and Utica Ave. plans would become but another unbuilt relic of the subway system.

Today, the areas that would have enjoyed subway system 80 or 90 years ago are among the more isolated and car-dependent neighborhoods in Brooklyn. While the Second Ave. line, whose fate was seemingly intertwined with the Nostrand and Utica Avenue plans, is now under way, no one is advocating for service in southern Brooklyn even though the city would be better off for it.

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ajedrez September 7, 2010 - 2:52 am

The irony with the L extension is that, with Williamsburg being so popular, the L is also facing overcrowding. The problem with capacity in the IRT may be able to be solved if the Nostrand Junction were fixed.

As far as the subway lines go, the long-term savings of running one train instead of 10 buses (on routes like the B35 and B46 in East Flatbush, and the Q35/B41 on Flatbush Avenue) will eventually exceed the short-term cost of building the new line (of course, some buses would run, but not as many as now)

Andrew September 7, 2010 - 7:13 am

It’s even more ironic: the IRT in Brooklyn isn’t overcrowded to begin with; the Canarsie line is far worse.

Jonathan September 7, 2010 - 7:41 am

Nice roundup, Ben. It would be nice to see the Utica plan in place along with more TOD-type residential development along Utica Ave, similar to what’s going up on Fourth Ave. The plan would be a boost even if it only terminated at Kings Plaza Shopping Mall near Avenue V. (I’m thinking HumanTransit.com-style trip-generator at the end of the line.) Kings Plaza is only 2.1 miles from Flatbush & Nostrand or 4.2 miles from Utica & Eastern Parkway. You’d think it could be done as cut-and-cover relatively cheaply.

Al D September 7, 2010 - 9:17 am

Nice article. Marine Park and Southeastern Sheepshead Bay are NIMBY central, so these lines would today never see the light of day, at least their full vision. SBS seems like the preferred solution now. The B44 and B46 as we all know here are very crowded bus lines, and those subway extensions would have provided much better service than the buses, so less buses on the road, and would have removed more cars from the road as well.

AlexB September 7, 2010 - 2:05 pm

These areas are NIMBY central; but by definition, a subway is the least invasive form of rapid transit around. It would result in fewer negative changes than bus rapid transit or light rail. The biggest problem would be disruption during construction, which would be huge.

Think twice September 8, 2010 - 2:00 pm

Marine Park is no more or less NIMBY than any subway suburb. Granted, there will always be stasis-loving curmudgeons in any neighborhood, but there are a lot of young people and young families with long commutes into the city. It’s still a prewar suburb with a lot of bus traffic/usage in spite of it being predominately upper-middle class. And there are folks who’ll walk 20 minutes or more to the Kings Hwy station. If given a choice between SBS and subways, the folks here would say, “Subway, subway, subway!” The next question they’d ask is, “built how, to where, and how soon?”

But SBS is probably the most we could hope for.

R2 September 7, 2010 - 11:17 am

I’m finding this series on expansions that weren’t to be fascinating if somewhat disheartening at the same time. Keep them coming!

Daniel Howard September 7, 2010 - 2:32 pm


Alon Levy September 7, 2010 - 1:03 pm

Right now, train frequency on the IRT is determined by the needs of the Upper East Side and Upper West Side, leading to undercrowding in Brooklyn. The Clark and Joralemon Street Tunnels rank third and fourth from the bottom among all routes to the CBD in peak number of passengers per car.

This means that extending the Brooklyn IRT to pick up more people would actually be good. It would raise operating costs because of the need to run trains for a longer stretch, but not require higher frequencies to cope with the crowding.

Think twice September 8, 2010 - 2:04 pm

That’s very interesting. Thanks for the insight Alon.

Andrew September 12, 2010 - 8:59 pm

Be careful. The IRT isn’t overcrowded in Brooklyn right now. That doesn’t mean ridership won’t grow over time. It also doesn’t mean that the proposed extension wouldn’t itself bump up ridership enough to cause overcrowding.

Remember that Brooklyn IRT service basically can’t be increased.

I’d want to see some ridership projections, with and without the proposed extension, before signing on.

AlexB September 7, 2010 - 2:28 pm

It’s tempting to think these extensions could be built as cut and cover. Is this possible? As no city has built a cut and cover subway in the US in recent time (that I can think of), do we know if they are significantly less expensive? They don’t have to be tunneled, but you have to move ALL the utilities.

Nathanael September 7, 2010 - 3:01 pm

Hmm. Seattle bus tunnel was cut-and-cover IIRC, right? That was what, 1980s?

As far as I can tell utility relocation is the key driver of schedule delay in rail construction projects these days. Cut-and-cover might or might not be cheaper, but it would definitely be just as slow. πŸ˜›

Jonathan April 4, 2012 - 9:57 pm

Vancouver just build its Canada Line rapid transit system by cut-and-cover. Its costs were extremely reasonable: just over $2 billion for the full 18+ km line, of which over half was in tunnel.

Kid Twist September 7, 2010 - 2:52 pm

I believe that at one point, either or both of these extensions were supposed to be els. I’m glad that never happened.

Kid Twist September 7, 2010 - 2:54 pm

Also, this is OT, but notice how in its map, the Times misspells Remsen Avenue.

Zmapper September 7, 2010 - 6:09 pm

This is what I cooked up for an extension of the IRT under Flatbush Ave to Kings Plaza.


I particularly don’t see the need for a subway line under Nostrand Ave seeing as SBS is going to service that area and also because it is low density. I chose to extend the line under Flatbush because it is a bustling commercial high density corridor terminating at a major activity center, Kings Plaza. Any comments or concerns?

Alon Levy September 7, 2010 - 6:42 pm

Here are some concerns:

1. Nostrand is a higher-ridership corridor than Flatbush.

2. Utica is higher-ridership than both, and would need a subway anyway; a Flatbush option would duplicate the service.

3. The stops on Nostrand between Flatbush and Franklin are so closely spaced that the trains would run very slowly, making Nostrand a poor choice for Kings Plaza service.

4. If I remember correctly, Flatbush has water table issues, which would force trains to go above ground around Avenue T. I believe neither Nostrand nor Utica has the same issue.

Zmapper September 7, 2010 - 7:47 pm

Ok, I see where you are going with this.

“Nostrand is a higher-ridership corridor than Flatbush.”
Could that be a result of Flatbush flaring out to a 10 lane super-speedway at Utica? With such excess space and a large parking garage, many people probably prefer to drive. Also, do you know how many people transfer between the B41 and the IRT at Nostrand?

“Utica is higher-ridership than both, and would need a subway anyway; a Flatbush option would duplicate the service.”
So what subway line could a Utica train hook up to? The tail tracks after the Crown Heights station on the (4) would make such a connection challenging and expensive. So that rules out the IRT connection. Other than that there are the Fulton, Jamaica, and Canarsie lines. Extending it from the Fulton line would require a sharp >90 degree curve to line up with the station at Utica and Fulton. A Jamaica connection would require transitioning from subway to elevated on a narrow section of Utica. A Canarsie connection would require multiple consecutive sharp curves; it would also cut the frequency on one of the most crowded lines. So there goes the subway option.

“The stops on Nostrand between Flatbush and Franklin are so closely spaced that the trains would run very slowly, making Nostrand a poor choice for Kings Plaza service.”
Google gives an average of 1/2 mile between stations. So, while not ideal, not to bad at the same time.

“If I remember correctly, Flatbush has water table issues, which would force trains to go above ground around Avenue T. I believe neither Nostrand nor Utica has the same issue.”
Flatbush has more than enough space for the tracks to raise to elevated level at Avenue T.

Alon Levy September 7, 2010 - 10:36 pm

Utica could, in fact, hook into the 4. All plans for Utica since WW2 involved hooking into the express Eastern Parkway tracks, using an existing bellmouth.

The station spacing on Nostrand is a little less than half a mile; it’s more like 700 meters. In contrast, most major subway systems average 1,200-1,300. The only ones that have substantially less, including New York, get away with it by having express tracks or parallel commuter rail running subway service levels.

ajedrez September 8, 2010 - 6:18 pm

The problem with Nostrand is that, to a degree, it parallels the Brighton Line.

Alon Levy September 10, 2010 - 12:21 am

True. But Utica would be built first anyway, so Flatbush would parallel Utica. The basic choice is then Nostrand versus No Build.

Andrew September 12, 2010 - 8:54 pm

The existing bellmouth is on the south side of the tracks, hooking up to the two local tracks. Connecting to the express would be quite a challenge.

Fredrick Wells February 24, 2017 - 2:21 pm

To my understanding, the Canarsie connection would be the best option for the Utica Avenue Subway (http://www.vanshnookenraggen.c.....nycsubway/) for the simple reasons that (a) you can combine it with a Nostrand Avenue South line as to not duplicate the Brighton Line, (b) you can effectively replace the B46 SELECT BUS SERVICE, which only runs from Kings Plaza to DeKalb Avenue, (c) it can be extended into the Second Avenue Subway via a new Metropolitan Avenue tunnel built from the Canarsie line, and (d) the 8th Avenue line can use a new tunnel link into Brooklyn without servicing the Fulton Street corridor.

The 4 line extension would present a lot of NIMBYs in the Marine Park area since it won’t replace the B46 SELECT BUS SERVICE, and people on the Upper East Side do not want less frequent Subway service.

Cap'n Transit September 7, 2010 - 7:44 pm

One of the main reasons I think the Second Avenue Subway is so important is that politically I think it would be hard to break ground on any of these other improvements until at least Phase One of the SAS is finished.

BrooklynBus September 8, 2010 - 10:05 pm

Nice summary, Ben. Just a few additions. I believe the first proposals for a Nostrand and Utica Avenue lines called for elevated lines, not subways. I believe Nostrand was to become an el south of Kings Highway and operate to Avenue W. The Utica line was supposed to be entirely an el coming out of the ground at Carroll Street. This is why the street widens at that point, to accommodate an elevated structure. I’m not sure when the plans changed to all subway.

Also, when the plans were revived around 1969, instead of two subways along Nostrand and Utica, a single line was proposed along Flatbush Avenue instead to Avenue U. [An extension of the New Lots line to around where Starrett City (Spring Creek Towers) is was also proposed at this time.] Opposition to this caused the plan to be revised again to call for two subway lines. Then everything was scrapped.

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Joseph Lambert September 27, 2013 - 4:41 pm

The Nostrand Avenue Line is more likely to be extended to kings plaza than voorhies avenue. if the 2 train is extended to kings plaza, then that would draw lots of shoppers. as a result, b41 bus service would be removed and q35 service would be cut back.

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