Home MTA Construction Walder talks 2nd Ave. Subway and weekend work

Walder talks 2nd Ave. Subway and weekend work

by Benjamin Kabak

Jay Walder fields questions while standing in front of the Second Avenue Subway tunnel boring machine. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

On day one, Jay Walder, MTA CEO and Chair, and I talked about the fiscal state of the authority. On day two, I presented his views on labor relations and alternate revenue sources. Today, we start with a topic near and dear to my heart: the Second Ave. Subway.

We all know the story of the Second Ave. Subway. Eight decades in the making, the MTA is finally building part of the badly-needed line. Phase 1 of the SAS, one of the MTA’s three ongoing megaprojects, is due to be completed at the end of 2016 and at a cost of $4.5 billion. I quizzed Walder on the future of the rest of the project. Today’s is a longer segment so let’s dive right in.

Second Ave. Sagas: One of the main thrusts of my site is the Second Ave. Subway and the capital expansion plans. I know there’s still some funding needed for Phase One, but I have to assume it’s too far along for the plug to be pulled. The political ramifications from Washington, from the City, from the MTA would just be too great to stop the project. What do you see as the future of the Second Ave. Subway? Do you realistically see a Phase 2, Phase 3, Phase 4? How long should we expect that to take?

Jay Walder: My focus almost exclusively has been on the fact that we have three megaprojects that we’re doing right now. These are the first megaprojects that we have been doing for a generation — we’re really talking about 70 years depending upon how you count the stuff that has happened. My focus has been on ensuring that we’re able to deliver these projects on the budget and the schedule that we’ve laid out. As you note, our capital program is not funded with all of the money necessary to complete these projects right now, and that remains a concern. We need to find a way to ensure that we are completing these projects.

At the same time, my other concern is that the mantra of this organization has been that we have to bring our existing system back to good repair, and we need to keep it in that condition. There’s much to be proud of in that regard. I started in this organization in 1983. When I started, the mean distance between breakdowns on subway trains was 7000 miles. It’s about 150,000 miles today. That’s a startling difference. You go around and you look at our station environment, and your jaw drops. Some of the station work is so nice and it’s been brought back — either bringing back the existing stuff and some of the artwork we’ve put in, and other things like that.

But in fact, what this system is is a huge system that in essence is composed of lots of unseen hidden infrastructure that’s depreciating and deteriorating all the time. We need to continue to invest in that. The scarier thing is not the trains and the station. The scarier things are the signals and the pumps and the track and the shops and the other things that continue to need huge amounts of investment.

We have a subway system today that has one line — exactly one line — that has modern technology for signals. The L train is the only line on which we’re using communications-based train control. We’ve now awarded a contract for the second line on the Flushing Line. But really, this is the type of technology that we need to be using across our system now. We are fortunate that we don’t have the red tags and the track problems and the other things that were going on in the late 1970s and early 1980s but we don’t have that because we invest hundreds of millions of dollars every year in the normal replacement of tracks. So that’s where I’ve been focused so far.

If you look at the Second Ave. Subway piece, to their credit, the planners with the way they set this up are achieving a very usable segment of a railway so that when it opens in 2016, you will have something that will connect into the rest of the system, is a usable railway and will make an immediate difference in what happens. You’re well-placed point is that if we don’t stop there, where do we go from here? The intent is that it goes south from there, and funding-available, that is exactly what everyone’s objective will be. We also have pieces of preexisting tunnel north so you may well have the opportunity to pick up both ends of that.

Will future sections of the Second Avenue Subway see the light of a day? (Click to enlarge the map)

Second Ave. Sagas: The people I’ve spoken of say Phase 2 would be easier to build out than the other phases, but they wonder what the appetite for a project that’s taken longer than initial thought, that costs more than initial thought. Where will the money come from or the will and drive to see it through?

The costs of doing this type of work in New York has proven to be hugely expensive, and one of the things we really need to find a way to be able to do is to reduce the costs of undertaking these types of megaprojects.

Walder: I think those are fair questions, and my focus has been on exactly what we have right now. Embedding in that is a question about how the costs of doing this type of work in New York has proven to be hugely expensive, and one of the things we really need to find a way to be able to do is to reduce the costs of undertaking these types of megaprojects.

We’re fortunate that we have these projects underway. I firmly believe we will bring these projects in on the budget and the schedule we have. I firmly believe we are going to complete these projects. I don’t think they’ll fall to the same fate as ARC, but I think the pressures that ARC faced in terms of the costs of being able to do this are equally pressures we’re facing on this side of the Hudson River as well. One of the things that’s very hard for a global city to do — one that’s competing across the world and across the country — is to have a cost structure that’s so far out of sync.

We have to find the way to be able to do that, and I don’t fully know the reasons why that is. I’m not actually making a judgment about why or what the solution is. I’m just making more of a judgment that the outcome is an unacceptable outcome. You can’t continue to be in that place because I don’t believe the region will have the economic capacity to support that unless we can be as efficient as other parties are at how to do that.

In 2008, then-MTA head Lee Sander's grand vision for the authority's next 40 years included the Triboro RX line.

Second Ave. Sagas: In 2008, your predecessor presented his grand vision for the MTA, the next 40 year plan, which included the Triboro RX line and more interconnectedness. Do you have a sense that the agency can realize those plans? Is it still floating in the background? Or right now, is the focus on the more immediate needs?

Walder: I think my predecessor had the advantage — and I sometimes tell Lee [Sander] this although he didn’t have it at the end — at the beginning of being in a robust economic climate, and one that seemed to support in many ways vision and thoughtfulness. New York in that era of the early-to-middle part of the first decade of this century has hatched a lot of plans. I think that’s great.

I have found myself in a somewhat different position. I have felt it is my responsibility in this economic climate to concentrate on executing what we have in front of us right now. I think I’ve tried to do three things: 1. To reduce the cost structure of what we have. It’s fundamentally important to the credibility of this organization. 2. As you say, I’m very focus to delivering immediate and short-term improvement, and I like to believe that we are. The use of technology for maybe the very first time at the MTA is actually providing customer benefits in a way that people have been asking for in a long time — the countdown clocks being a primary example of that, the cameras that are going up on the SBS route on First and Second Ave. to finally be able to enforce our bus lanes in a way that is consistent with what a bus lane is supposed to be, the achievement of wi-fi and cell phone service in the subway which will be there in a few stations next year and will pave the way for the rest of it to be done, the connection of 3700 security camera which has happened and is now connected as well into the NYPD.

I think my focus has been to say that New Yorkers are not exactly known for their patience. While I think grand plans and vision are great — and I’m a big fan of it — but now is not the time for that. Now is the time to honker down.

The other point is that we need to deliver on our capital investments. People want to know that we’re delivering the big projects and also for all of the other capital investments that we’re making. No one can ride the subway on a weekend and not be hit by the magnitude of the work that we’re doing. I won’t be apologetic for that. We’re going to have work. What I do think is that we should be accountable for getting into a place and getting out of a place, for doing it efficiently, for really utilizing our track outages in a way that gets the most out of what we can do.

Second Ave. Sagas: I know you mentioned earlier this year looking at if it would be possible to shut down lines entirely to speed up the pace of work. Is that still under consideration?

In keeping with these economic times, we have to be willing to think outside of the box — perhaps closing lines for short periods of time, getting in there, blitzing a ton of work, 24-7, just go in there and do anything you can possibly imagine and get it done and get out.

Walder: We’re still continuing to look at that. I am struck by [the fact that] ridership has gone up by 50 percent since 1995. The growth and the use of the system means that it is exceptionally difficult to pick up people onto other places in the system. I do think we need to continue to look at it. We have situations where we are taking things out of service but doing it in a partial way in order to keep services running. It’s hampering the efficiency in the way that we’re able to deliver things. It comes back into the cost side of the house. In keeping with these economic times, we have to be willing to think outside of the box — perhaps closing lines for short periods of time, getting in there, blitzing a ton of work, 24-7, just go in there and do anything you can possibly imagine and get it done and get out. Other cities have done this.

Even in London where a situation that you never want to have, we had a safety issue that occurred on the Central Line. As the name applies, it is literally in the middle, and if you said to people before that happened, could we take the Central Line out of service, the answer would have been “are you insane?” But we took the Central Line out of service for two months because we didn’t have a choice and people had to adjust.

If we’re going to go down that path, we have to do it exceptionally carefully. We need to be well-planned in what we’re going to do. We need to be thinking about how we give people alternatives and really work to give people that. I’m not sure we’re yet all the way there to answer those questions.

Coming tomorrow in the final segment: What future the MetroCard?

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Jed December 1, 2010 - 1:38 am

I’ve always wondered why the city would plan on building a new (and expensive) Second Ave subway below Houston street, when they already have two unused tracks running almost the same alignment?

If the MTA could just get the 2nd Ave subway to Delancy (basically phase 3, plus a few blocks), they could feed that line directly into the two unused tracks on the four track JZ line (the track map I’m basing this on is here: http://images.nycsubway.org/tr.....hattan.png).

You get three stations and almost a mile of subway for nearly nothing, and you get phase 3 all the way down to Chambers St. That means you only need to build one more station to complete the line to the Wall St area (or you could shorten the JZ to Chambers and run the T all the way down to Wall St, which would save even more money and time). It would save billions and get the subway downtown years earlier… plus it would actually connect to other lines downtown (the JZ and 456), which the current proposal pretty much skips.

There’s no need for stations at South Street Seaport and Hannover Square that justifies spending billions and delaying downtown service for years–those areas are a couple short blocks from plenty of subway service already.

Alon Levy December 1, 2010 - 2:27 am

The MTA says the connections between SAS Phase 3 and the existing space under Chrystie aren’t good, forcing a deeper alignment under the Chrystie Street connection or a similarly deep alignment under Forsyth.

That said, the MTA is by a large margin the world’s most expensive subway builder; it may well be bullshitting.

Berk32 December 1, 2010 - 2:29 am

He’s not talking about the existing unused space under chryste (i thought so to when i first read it) – he’s suggesting connecting the new line to the J/Z…

Max S. (WilletsPoint-SheaStadium) December 1, 2010 - 11:42 am

This would have to include platform lengthening as Second Avenue is going ahead to utilize 10 R160 or 8 R68/46 cars.

Berk32 December 1, 2010 - 2:27 am

Because the intent of phase 4 is to add service to the lower east side and area south that does not have a subway nearby – connecting it to the unused J/Z tracks does not solve those goals. That would be one crazy tunnel curve under a whole bunch of buildings to make that connection at Kenmare St. This would probably be a very difficult engineering undertaking if it’s possible at all, which I don’t think it is…

Kid Twist December 1, 2010 - 11:23 am

I think at one point, maybe 10 years ago, they did consider connecting the Second Avenue Line to the Nassau Loop, but they decided against it for some reason.

Joe December 1, 2010 - 9:36 am

Correct me if I’m wrong, the current plans for Phase 4 calls for a transfer underneath the Grand Street station. Let’s keep those plans for now, and then tie the SAS tracks into the unused tail tracks that go to the Manhattan Bridge from Chambers Street. I don’t know if it’s even possible, the tail tracks must go close to the surface and the SAS tracks are deep. But if it were possible, that would be a better solution to trying to build under a tall canyon of buildings and skirting or going across the water line of Manhattan.

Marc Shepherd December 1, 2010 - 11:30 am

That exact alignment was considered in some detail. The documents are all still on the MTA website. As I recall, without re-reading all of it again, there were three reasons for rejecting that option.

First, the Nassau Street Line is built at a shallow level, in densely built-up neighborhoods. Doing any kind of construction around those stations would be ridiculously expensive, in relation to the benefit gained.

Second, the platforms are 480 feet, as opposed to the IND standard 600 feet, and they cannot be expanded without condemning many of the surrounding buildings.

Third, they wanted to provide service to new areas, rather than adding service to existing stations where extra capacity is not really needed.

We could all be dead before they get around to Phase 4, and by then who knows what the priorities will be? But those were the reasons as of about 5-10 years ago, when the decision was made.

Bolwerk December 1, 2010 - 12:06 pm

And I guess we’d be able to save the light blue color for another line, and make the SAS brown.

I don’t think it’s a bad idea, but the SAS does travel well east of the Nassau Street Line (J/M/Z). Places like Chatham Square and the neighborhood around the Seaport had service from the el the SAS is finally replacing, which might be part of the motivation.

Lawrence Velazquez December 6, 2010 - 8:57 am

Not to kick a dead horse, but there is now only one unused track in Centre Street. The northbound “express” track was removed a while ago.

Lawrence Velazquez December 6, 2010 - 8:58 am

Oops, I meant “beat a dead horse.” I was also thinking of “kick a man while he’s down,” and they just got mixed up.

John December 1, 2010 - 5:48 am

The slight eastward curve of Second Avenue at First St. to align with Christie Street would also allow the Second Avenue subway to be routed beneath Sara Delano Roosevelt Park closer to Forsyth Street, instead of directly beneath the B/D tunnel coming off Houston Street toasted the Manhattan Bridge. Running the line under the park would make curving it onto the Nassau Street line before the Bowery station far less of a logistical ordeal, and with a track realignment for the J/Z between Essex and the Bowery, trains coming off the Williamsburgh Bridge could be routed onto the middle tracks at Bowery and Canal before terminating at Chambers, while the outer tracks would be for Seocnd Avenue through service, so the T could terminate at Broad Street or continue on to Brooklyn via the Montague tunnel.

The MTA’s other problem with that option seemed to be the need to redo switch alignments in order to lengthen the platforms to handle 600-foot trains, but it’s hard to see how that would surpass the cost of a tunnel and four stations between Delancey and Hanover Square.

As for the line shutdowns for extended maintenance work, I suppose shutting down one trunk line a year for a couple of weeks during the summer is possible in Manhattan on the west side, or even in downtown Brooklyn, since the system does have parallel line redundancies that would at least give riders alternative options. Shutting down the Lex or the Queens Blvd. line for extended work would be more problematic due to the lack of other options, though once upper Second Avenue is done, three would at least be the ability to work on the upper Lex local and express tracks in sections (since the line is mostly bi-level from 42nd to 125th) without leaving the entire East Side without subway service.

Berk32 December 1, 2010 - 8:49 am

wow – gotta love the pipe dreams – connecting to the j/z trackway ain’t happening. That area under the park you are referring to is where the chrystie st connection already is (now used by the M) and the space used for that should give you an idea of what would be needed to successfully connect the T to the J/Z unused tracks (if the space were available)… I’m sure the cost of figuring out how to build it + building it + upgrading the rest of the unused section (which hasn’t been used in many years) would cost much more than what has been proposed (and already properly studied).

John December 1, 2010 - 12:17 pm

Eastbound track connection from B’way-Layfatte to Essex is three levels below ground, the Delancey tracks for the J/Z are two levels under the surface and the B/D tracks are just one level underground at Delancey, with the connection for the M from Essex to B’way-Lafayette ramping up from the spilt with the Delancey tracks to parallel the tracks coming from the Manny B one level below ground from Delancey to Houston, and then ramping down into B’way-Lafayette.

That means a southbound Second Avenue track that was just one level below the F tracks at Houston/Second Ave. would only have to rise one level while the M track to Essex descends to make the track connection with the J/Z before the Bowery station. The northbound link would be harder, but again, having a park between Chrystie and Forsyth streets would allow for some room to ‘dogleg’ the track up and over the Delancey Street tracks (and the uptown tracks splitting off from there that the M train uses), and then descend two levels to get beneath the tracks at Houston Street.

Not logistically easy. But still easier than, say, building the Sixth Avenue tracks around the BMT, LIRR and PATH tunnels through Herald Square 70 years ago, and probably still cheaper than another mile of new trackage and four new stations between Delancey and Hanover Square.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines December 1, 2010 - 9:00 am

[…] Jay Walder on the 2nd Ave Subway and Maintaining the MTA’s System (2nd Ave Sagas) […]

Berk32 December 1, 2010 - 9:09 am

Also, if it were possible to do – I’m sure they would’ve connected the F or B/D tracks to that line when they made the Chrystie St connection – having a connection from the 6th ave line to the financial district would’ve been very useful – then either the B or D could have headed to brooklyn via the montague st tunnel and rejoin its normal route.

Larry Littlefield December 1, 2010 - 9:24 am

I will be thrilled and surprised if East Side Access, the Flushing Extension, and the Second Avenue Subway to 125th are completed by 2018 without the rest of the system collapsing.

“As the name applies, it is literally in the middle, and if you said to people before that happened, could we take the Central Line out of service, the answer would have been “are you insane?”

The reason you need Phase II of the SAS (which would have been part of phase I and done by now had it not been blocked by the state legislature) is so there is an alternative if the Lex line has to be taken out of service, to affordably replace the signals for example. I would compare it to the Third Water Tunnel — a vital reduncancy, in addition to the advantage of providing better access to the substantial institutional complex on the Upper East Side.

Anything that doesn’t get built by 2020 will never be built, anywhere in the U.S., for decades due to the cost of benefits for what will probably be our most affluent generations of senior citizens.

Jed December 1, 2010 - 1:51 pm

Thanks for all the comments… you all clearly know a lot more about the intricate details of the tracks than I do…

As for the three reasons cited above: It sounds like engineering the connection to the existing alignment would be hard, but I can’t imagine it costing more than building more than a mile of new subway under Chinatown and downtown–especially if phase 1 is any indicator of cost. Same goes for lengthening the existing platforms. Buildings will already need to be destroyed with the current plan to make way for the ventilation units (I’m assuming this based on what’s been going on the UES), so it wouldn’t be terribly different, just cheaper.

As for the third point, while phase 4 would add stations in two areas that don’t already have nearby service (I wouldn’t count Hannover Square, which is ridiculously close to the 2/3 and J/Z or Grand, which is already served by the BD), it neglects to provide any meaningful connections for riders who want to get from lines other than the BDMF to 2nd Ave. As someone who works downtown on Fulton St, I can attest that South St Seaport and Chatham Square are not terribly long walks from a number of lines. I’d imagine it would be more important to connect the T to the 4/5, 2/3, A/C, R and PATH at the Fulton St. transit center and the N/Q/R/6 at Canal St, than provide new service without connections to chatham and the seaport. Especially if doing that would be the cheaper of the two options (it may not be, but it sure seems like it could be).

Marc Shepherd December 1, 2010 - 6:00 pm

I would suggest you look up the documents from the environmental process, still available on the MTA website, where this was studied in detail. Whether you’re right or wrong, reading the stuff is better than just guessing.

One big difference is that the MTA has some flexibility as to where those ventilation buildings go. When you work around existing stations, you have no choice: they are where they are. You also have the problem of keeping service running during the many months (or more likely years) of construction. The problems of supporting intersecting subway lines and re-routing utilities are much more complex. Just imagine what would be involved at the Canal Street station, where four lines cross, and the dense urban traffic there.

Those stations are in areas that are considered historically sensitive. Many of the surrounding buildings are very old, and it is very complicated to work around them. Construction affects not just what you demolish, but everything nearby. The days when Robert Moses could just bulldoze whatever he wanted, are long gone.

That is just a summary of the issues involved.

Andrew D. Smith December 1, 2010 - 4:32 pm

Suggested topic for future post: Why the hell is it so difficult and so expensive to track trains as they move through the tunnel? In an age where tracking the movement of absolutely everything else approaches free, I cannot fathom why the subway uses a signalling system and sees countdown clocks as a project that will take a decade and cost untold millions. Yes, I realize you can’t use GPS underground, but the past three decades have seen countless new technologies for distributing information, all of which are incredibly cheap at this point. What gives?

JK December 1, 2010 - 4:55 pm

Does the MTA do anything to elicit ideas from the transit obsessed readers of blogs like this one, in person, online or otherwise?
“Crowdsourcing” can be very powerful, especially when you have expert or quasi-expert policy forums. Seems like MTA should put a “Challenge” app on their website like this one the feds are running.


Farro December 2, 2010 - 12:21 am

I do always have the impression that a lot of the people who comment on these blogs would probably do a better job than the MTA.

In theory, you could then connect Hanover Square to Brooklyn, though that would probably take forever without a Robert Moses like figure–or perhaps connect it to Wall St on the 2 3

Marc Shepherd December 2, 2010 - 8:57 am

Actually, my impression is the opposite. Most people who comment here are amateurs who have never built or run a railroad.

Benjamin Kabak December 2, 2010 - 9:02 am

Might that have something to do with the fact that most people have not ever built or run a railroad?

Marc Shepherd December 2, 2010 - 11:19 am

Why yes, of course.

But I do think that, in comparison to most fields, amateur rail buffs have an amazing propensity to think they could do it better than professionals.

In contrast, to give but one example, one might be angry at an incompetent physician, but practically everyone understands that amateur doctors are not better than those who have been trained for it.

Farro December 2, 2010 - 1:26 pm

Training (or more abstractly, knowledge) and experience are not the same thing…

Alon Levy December 2, 2010 - 2:43 pm

Honestly? I don’t see this at all. What I see is that amateur rail buffs keep talking about how things are done elsewhere, just like amateur health care wonks. It was quite common during the debate leading up to health care reform for non-doctors to explain how health care worked in the countries they were familiar with, and how/why it was better than in the US. Other people, with purely intra-US experience, would sometimes compare better health care systems within the US with worse ones on metrics such as cost control, comprehensiveness of care, etc.

If anything, the difference goes in the opposite direction. Health care commentators invariably understand that their interests as patients are not the same as the interests of doctors. Railroad commentators don’t – they often sympathize with the operators more than with the riders.

Farro December 2, 2010 - 9:57 am

Doesn’t inherently mean they’ll do a bad job, just as having run a railroad won’t necessarily mean you’ll do a good one…

Alon Levy December 2, 2010 - 1:53 pm

The people commenting on this blog and the people running the MTA have exactly the same amount of experience working at competent railroads, i.e. ones that can dig tunnels for under a billion dollars a kilometer, don’t require five conductors per commuter train, etc.

Urban Omnibus » The Omnibus Roundup – Trams, Ferries, Subways, Weeksville & the Queen of the Pop-up Plaza December 3, 2010 - 5:27 pm

[…] OF THE MTA Benjamin Kabak of Second Avenue Sagas has posted a comprehensive four-part interview with MTA CEO and Chair Jay Walder probing the MTA’s financial state, labor relations, the […]

MTA silent but Mica, feds hint at SAS Phase 2 :: Second Ave. Sagas November 2, 2011 - 12:01 am

[…] about the possibilities for future phases. When I interviewed Jay Walder last year, he talked about firming up Phase 1 funding commitments and looking for ways to reduce construction costs. On future phases, he […]


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