Home Second Avenue Subway Underneath 2nd Ave., inching closer to a subway

Underneath 2nd Ave., inching closer to a subway

by Benjamin Kabak

In mid-June, Adi, the Second Ave. TBM, was digging past 76th Street.

As this site nears its fifth birthday — I’ll reach the half-decade mark in late November — my thoughts have often turned toward the Second Ave. Subway. I started this site in 2006 when it became clear that Sen. Chuck Schumer and the then-newly empowered Senate Democrats would offer substantial funding to New York City for the completion of the first phase of the Second Ave. Subway. After 70 years of planning and numerous starts and stops, a salvation for the congesting East Side IRT and access for those who live on the far East Side was on the horizon.

Of course, that was before the market went south, before Lehman Brothers collapsed, before the state only guaranteed funding for two years of the MTA’s key 2010-2014 capital plan that would have all but guaranteed enough money to cover Second Ave. Subway construction. Economically and politically, things are much different than they were five years ago.

Yet, I feel more confident today that Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway will be completed — by 2016 or 2017 — that I have at any time earlier in this website’s life. The simple truth is that the MTA has spent too much money and expended too many resources to pull up stakes now. The western tunnel is complete; the eastern tunnel is two-thirds of the way to its destination at 63rd St. The federal government expects this project to be completed, and numerous other stakeholders do as well. It will get finished even if the fights over funding are far from over.

What is still surprising to me, though, is just how much remains to be completed. The MTA is quite pleased that Adi, the tunnel boring machine, will soon reach its southern destination, and the completion of the two tunnels should be viewed as a major milestone. But this blog will have to double in years before I have a chance to attend the ribbon-cutting along Second Ave. That’s a crazy long construction timeline.

That said, the MTA is moving forward. As The Daily News reported, Capital Construction is gearing up to award a few key contracts. The contracts, according to Pete Donohue, are for “tracks, signals and communications equipment,” and it is in the words of The Daily News, one of the project’s “last major construction contracts” as the Dec. 2016 completion date inches closer. “The Second Ave. subway is no longer just a blueprint – we’ve made enormous progress and we’re committed to getting it done,” MTA spokesman Jeremy Soffin said.

The finer print is available on the MTA CC procurement page. The authority plans to open C-26009 on July 28. As the Solicitation document notes, that contract is to last 61 months. That timeframe brings us up to the revenue date for the Second Ave. subway.

Yet, stormclouds are brewing on the horizon. As Donohue reports, the MTA still has to cover approximately $940 million in funding for SAS. It is anticipated that the federal government will cover some via infrastructure grants and that Albany will guarantee the rest through legislative action this fall when it finally takes up the MTA’s capital funding gap. But transit advocates are worried about belt-tightening in DC, and even with union, advocate and contractor pressure, Albany sometimes marches to its own drum.

So we wait. Since the 1930s, the Second Avenue Subway has come to symbolize infrastructure ineptitude on the part of New York City, its planners and politicians. Its construction has always preceded economic downturns, but the MTA seems intent on pushing through. The first five years have come by pretty quickly; now we just have to wait out the remaining five.

You may also like


Alex C July 13, 2011 - 2:05 am

Replace NYC with any city in Germany or Japan and this project is done in 5 years…

Brian July 13, 2011 - 3:32 am

or circa 1904 new york

Alon Levy July 13, 2011 - 2:25 pm

Kind of, sort of. From concept to completion, the IRT took about 40 years to build. People have just forgotten how nasty and uncertain the politics of late-19th century New York was.

Bolwerk July 13, 2011 - 2:58 pm

Well, in all fairness, the technology wasn’t there until probably the 1880s or 1890s.

Alon Levy July 13, 2011 - 5:16 pm

Yes, it was. The pneumatic tube opened in 1869; the technology just ended up not used much for transportation.

Bolwerk July 13, 2011 - 7:39 pm

And somehow I suspect that wouldn’t been very practical to create a network the size of even the original IRT subway. Among other engineering advances, electric rail wasn’t around until the late 1880s. Of course, London jumped on it in 1890, at least says Wikipedia, and New York waited another 14 years.

Nathanael July 13, 2011 - 8:37 pm

The first cut-and-cover subways in London? 1840s. With steam.

London was far ahead of New York.

Of course, New York and London both had electric streetcars en masse by the 1880s, and NY had a lot of elevateds. Both cities tore out their streetcars.

Bolwerk July 13, 2011 - 11:04 pm

Uh, I was talking about electric rail; London got it some electric railroad service 1890 or so. The first electric trolley was in Richmond, Virginia, in 1888 or so, and I doubt it was available en masse in either city until at least the 1890s. I don’t know when NYC started electrifying els, but probably the 1890s.

But hell, New York (Brooklyn actually) had a steam “subway” as early as the 1840s. London was hardly ahead in that area.

Alon Levy July 14, 2011 - 9:41 am

New Yorkers considered and rejected steam service in the 1860s, on the grounds that it was unsuitable for the city’s topography. The Circle Line has a lot of elevated segments, allowing adequate ventilation, but in New York the subway route would be north-south and continuously underground for many miles, making steam traction unsafe.

Andrew July 14, 2011 - 10:36 pm

None of the Circle line is elevated. It’s a cross between cut-and-cover and open cut – it’s below ground level, covered in places and uncovered in others.

Alon Levy July 15, 2011 - 7:57 pm

Yep, you’re right – I just remembered there were parts of the line that were not in a covered tunnel.

Jimmy July 13, 2011 - 6:37 pm

Look how long the IRT is. And it didn’t take long to biuld the original IRT.

Miles Bader July 13, 2011 - 3:55 am

… for a quarter the price…

[Ok, I dunno, really; it’s hard to compare things. But e.g. the generally reported cost of of the Tokyo Fukutoushin Line Shibuya-Ikebukuro segment (8.5km, with stations) is $3 billion; the SAS 13km section is to cost $17 billion…]

Miles Bader July 13, 2011 - 4:00 am


Alon Levy July 13, 2011 - 5:20 pm

A quarter is if you’re comparing New York to Tokyo, where costs are very high by non-English-speaking standards; Tokyo Metro said future expansions will be $500 million per km and that’s too expensive. In Paris it’s still $250 million per km for a fully underground line, and in a bunch of other cities (for example, Milan) it’s not much more than $100 million.

Miles Bader July 13, 2011 - 7:17 pm

Sure, but what I’m thinking is, if even Tokyo — with high construction costs, extensive regulation, high density, a complicated underground situation (the fukutoshin line has a bunch of fairly steep grades because it had to dodge previous subway lines, was delayed due to archeological findings, etc) and very high standards — can beat NYC by a factor of four, something seems wrong…

That’s why I’d really like to see a breakdown of where all the costs are going (I’ve done a bit of searching, but my google-foo just isn’t up to it, it seems…); maybe there’s some big issue that’s eating up all that money…

Nathanael July 13, 2011 - 8:43 pm

OK, let’s start with the obvious. Utility relocation.

In most countries, the utilities are mapped and are where they are supposed to be; especially in London where the mapping started in the early 1800s. In NY, there was a TWO YEAR delay due to utility relocation, and that jacked up costs in a fairly obvious way.

There are less obvious reasons, and Alon has pointed to some of them. NY has a set of contracting laws which discourage the best contractors from even applying, and encourage others to pad their estimates. (This does *not* apply to other states.) The heavy construction industry in NYC is controlled by very few companies to start with, so this leads to very little bid competition.

Then there’s another obvious one: freeloaders. The Department of Buildings didn’t do its job in forcing unstable buildings to be upgraded, the landlords didn’t do their jobs either, and both managed to blackmail the MTA into paying for costs which it never should have paid for. The freeloader problem applies in San Fancisco too, where Muni is loaded with unrelated costs of other city departments. The freeloader problem does not happen in most countries.

That’s a start. 😛

Miles Bader July 14, 2011 - 5:57 am

Well that’s all duly depressing…

I suppose it’s unlikely the political will to fix the fixable stuff will ever be mustered?

Bolwerk July 14, 2011 - 11:02 am

I remember a story some years ago that the phone company (not sure it was Verizon yet at that point) didn’t really keep records of where/how its copper conduits ran. At some point, only two people were available who had it mapped out in their head, and one of them was dying.

Can’t vouch for the authenticity, but charming anyway!

Judge July 13, 2011 - 9:06 am

Does anybody know if there will be Phase 3 starter tunnels / bell-mouths before the curve to the 63 St station? I can’t seem to find anything on the matter.

Redbird July 13, 2011 - 9:32 am

Nothing is included in the TBM mining contract for this.

R. Graham July 13, 2011 - 9:44 am

TBMs are not typically used to create starter tunnels. It makes sense to use the TBM for the main mission. Using it for the starter tube would involve backing the whole thing up and getting it started again in the other direction. Completely unnecessary.

R. Graham July 13, 2011 - 9:37 am

I think that portion is a must if you want to have continued uninterrupted SAS service. It will be a totally new line so it shouldn’t be subjected to many if any General Orders within the first several years.

That might be a mute point anyway because who knows if or when a phase three would kick off. Phase 2 however is a must and the funds have to be appropriated for it. You have existing tunnels and if you really want to relieve the Lex for the morning rush you are going to need service up to 125th.

Nathanael July 13, 2011 - 8:46 pm

The bellmouths are specified in the design. I might have missed a change order removing them but I don’t think so.

However, they won’t be done by TBM; they will be done by “manual” mining, so they’ll be part of one of the manual mining contracts. Probably the one for finishing the curve to 63rd St. which couldn’t be mined by TBM (only one of the two tubes’ curves was shallow enough to do by TBM).

AlexB July 14, 2011 - 4:12 pm

I am pretty sure that neither Germany or Japan are building metros at all right now. The one that is being built in Berlin U55 – is very short and taking forever.

ant6n July 17, 2011 - 1:40 pm

Actually, there are plenty of subway-like projects in Germany
– Berlin u5
– Dusseldorf building a 2mile tunnel, to open in 2014
– Munich just opened a u3 extension in Dec 2010
– Hamburg u4 extension, planned to open 2012
– Leipzig city tunnel (S-Bahn), planned to open 2013
– Karslruhe is currently putting the downtown portion of their tram-train network underground

ant6n July 17, 2011 - 1:24 pm

Look at Stuttgart 21, look at the transit plans Berlin had in 1995 for 2010, and how they implemented like 5% of that, look at how long the 2nd S-Bahn tunnel in Munich is being delayed, etc. etc. In Germany they do many transit related things better than in the US, but speed of planning/implementation of capital projects ain’t really it.

Richard August 1, 2011 - 10:38 am

There are hundreds of reasons this project has taken way too long and cost too much money and they all go back to one thing: Management. Design Managment, Risk Managment, Project Management. Contract Management. Management.

The design is not conducive to getting the job done quickly or on budget. It was noted years ago that the surface contractors were dragging their feet (aka milking the project) and would not be ready when the TBM reached its destination.

Blasting was delayed for over six months while lawyers wrangled. Then the MTA decided, to make the completion of the project a priority over lawyers endlessly fighting landlords — cheaper, too. The list of subpar decision by the managers of this project is very, very long adding years and hundreds of millions of dollars to the project.

Every project has challenges. What’s been missing is world class management and oversight by the MTA up and down this project.

SEAN July 13, 2011 - 10:46 am

Which of these happens first; 1. SAS opperates to 125th Street or 2 WMATA’s Silver Line opperates to IAD. I’m betting on the Silver Line.

BoerumHillScott July 13, 2011 - 11:01 am

My guess for subway construction completions:
1) Silver line line to IAD
2) LACMTA Purple line to 405/VA
3) SAS to 125

Are there any other U.S. subway/heavy urban rail projects in advanced planning stages that have any hope of being built?

I believe under construction right now in the US are :
– SAS Phase 1
– 7 Westside extension
– WMATA silver line to Tysons Corners
– Miami Metrorail to airport

Tsuyoshi July 13, 2011 - 11:24 am

The Westside Subway Extension in Los Angeles is in the final stage of planning, and is already funded.

David in NYC July 13, 2011 - 2:18 pm

We’ll all be dead before Phase 3 ever starts, let alone is completed. Hanover Square is an odd terminus and will hopefully be reconsidered.
A better option might be to extend Phase 2 west under very busy 125th Street connecting three other lines to Broadway.
Companies are already leaving east Midtown for the larger, new buildings on the west side.
Yes, all this talk is heresy….

Bolwerk July 13, 2011 - 3:04 pm

Eh, if you’re going to have a true east side Subway, Hanover Square is as good as any terminus. Don’t forget, part of the point is to serve the LES and other under-served areas. Maybe it even opens the possibility of a link to Staten Island to turn it into the next Williamsburg.

But, I don’t see why an extension further west is precluded by Hanover Square being a terminus. Hanover Square is the southern terminal of a distant service expansion. Midtown West will enjoy the benefits of Phase 1 by connecting something out of the N/R/Q/Deceased-W to the east side. Probably one of the few bright spots in this whole boondoggle.

AlexB July 13, 2011 - 5:18 pm

What about a terminus under wall st or fulton st or the south ferry so people from Brooklyn can transfer to the new line? Or a connection to the Montague tunnel? Or a connection to Court St/Transit Museum station so it can run onto the Fulton local or express in Brooklyn? Even better, it connects to the transit museum and then runs all the way to Bedford Nostrand or even Court Square on the G. I can think of all sorts of better termini than Hanover Sq. That sort of thinking perpetuates the weirdness from the 60s planning in NY that takes the absurd view that no one ever wants to transfer.

Bolwerk July 13, 2011 - 7:41 pm

I don’t think running it into current two-track tunnel is a good idea, but I don’t see what precludes any number of expansions from Hanover Sq..

David in NYC July 13, 2011 - 8:24 pm

Exactly AlexB! It’s extremely unlikely most riders won’t live in Spanish Harlem and work in the eastern FiDi but that’s what the proposed line will expect.
Increasing transfer options increasing riders options and makes everyone’s life easier.
Phase 4 should head east to Tompkins Square using part of the ‘L’ line and south using the ‘F’ line tunnel. Heading downtown on Park Row, the terminus would be Fulton Street & William Street allowing transfer to multiple FiDi subway lines.
By reducing tunneling and using some existing tunnels, crossing Harlem with subway would transform the area.
So Fulton to Manhattanville gets my vote!

Benjamin Kabak July 13, 2011 - 8:40 pm

Besides the fact that it’s never going to happen, adding a switch and more trains to the L line between 2nd and 1st Ave. will absolutely kill an already overcrowded line. Can’t happen.

Andrew July 13, 2011 - 9:50 pm

The point of a subway line is not to take people from one terminal to the other. People can get on at any station and get off at any other station.

Bolwerk July 14, 2011 - 12:26 am

The SAS is so short that you can bet there ought to be plans for some such rides.

Andrew July 14, 2011 - 10:43 pm

Of course there will be some such rides, and that’s not a problem. I was responding to David in NYC, who seemed to think that there wasn’t much demand for end-to-end rides on the line, and therefore the line didn’t make sense.

David in NYC July 14, 2011 - 12:44 pm

The point of subway lines is that they make it possible to get to most destinations by transferring from one line to another. Benjamin must know what percentage of regular subway riders transfer lines.
What I’m proposing (Fulton St. to Manhattanville) allows transfer stations at each end of the line. Now riders from several other lines would be able to transfer onto the SAS and now have access to the east side of Manhattan.
Using some existing tunnels does add congestion, but is the L line any more busy than the N/Q/R East River tunnel section? The single L line could accommodate.
Increase rider options and you increase ridership.

Benjamin Kabak July 14, 2011 - 12:47 pm

is the L line any more busy than the N/Q/R East River tunnel section?

During peak hours, the L line is literally at full capacity. You could not add more lines to it, and it anyway, the curve east from Second Ave. to Tompkins Square would have to start and end outside the bounds of the straight-line L tunnel. It’s a routing that’s been discussed before, but it would require a new tunnel underneath the current L line.

Bolwerk July 14, 2011 - 2:23 pm

It’s also pointless. The best thing to do with the SAS in regard to the L is make it possible to absorb east side trips transferring to/from the L. Some huge proportion of L passengers to Manhattan get out at Union Square.

Andrew July 14, 2011 - 10:45 pm

The L is FAR more crowded than the N/Q/R. By now the L is probably the most crowded line in the system, or if not, it’s very close.

AlexB July 14, 2011 - 3:54 pm

I think curving or branching phase 3 such that the line turns under stuyvesent square and then under stuy town to run down avenue A to the F would be useful (with a stop near tompkins sq park). you’d probably have to stack the tunnels to fit within the width of avenue a, but the resulting direct line from downtown brooklyn to midtown would be the fastest option and greatly improve commutes for ACFG riders.

Hank July 13, 2011 - 2:20 pm

I talked to some guys by the launch box last Thursday and they assured me that they had drilled over 4050ft on the east tunnel so I *think* that puts them just below 70th.

As for Sean’s query, I think Boerum has the right of in terms of completion dates. Though the Dulles surface/subsurface station issue has been interesting to watch.

Clarke July 13, 2011 - 2:21 pm

Are the existing tunnels north of 96th St even usable considering the southern portion was done with deep mining techniques and they were built with cut-and-cover?

Alon Levy July 13, 2011 - 2:29 pm

Yes, they are – the plan is to use them for Phase 2. I don’t know the depth profile off-hand, but I remember having seen a chart on the MTA’s website somewhere and it looked fine.

Alex C July 13, 2011 - 7:57 pm

The MTA mentioned that the tunnels from the previous attempt are in pristine condition, so I don’t think those will bring any trouble.

Nathanael July 13, 2011 - 8:51 pm

Yes. Notice where the launch box is? The deep tunnels come to the surface at the launch box, so it’s cut-and-cover north of there.

Phase 2 requires the construction of 2 “easy” stations (cut and cover), one “hard” station at 125th St., and the curve to 125th St. The rest of the tunnels are done.

It could easily be subdivided into phase 2a (106th St), phase 2b (116th St) and phase 2c (125th St).

Linkage: Timeshare Condo Sued; Roosevelt Island Tram Has a Fire Drill - The Broker Buddy July 13, 2011 - 6:25 pm

[…] [WSJ] · Convent Avenue house goes into contract within a month [Harlem Bespoke] · Second Avenue Subway’s Phase 1 looks on track for 2016 or 2017 [SAS] · A variation on the how New Yorkers see the U.S. meme [Laughing Squid] · Former […]

Clarke July 14, 2011 - 5:05 pm


Not sure if everybody has read this, but it has a LOT of gold on the different routes and options considered for the SAS (including light rail, expanding the Lex to 12-car platforms, a “SAS Eastward Alignment” up Ave B, as discussed in here, a SAS to 43rd then crosstown to NJ, and adding “First Avenue at 63rd Street on the Q route; First Avenue at 59th Street on the Broadway line; First Avenue at 42nd Street on the 7 route; and Avenue C at 14th Street on the L route,” the latter of which I have read much discussion on here and which the study determined: “the proposed station on the L route at 14th Street and Avenue C was retained for possible inclusion in the TSM Alternative.”)
[This is all in Ch 2. Project Alternatives]

What I thought was interesting, though, was in Fig 2-12 (http://www.mta.info/capconstr/.....ig2-12.pdf); the route on Canal and Centre streets depicted as “Existing LRT Tunnel”…is this SAS tunneling from the 70s or the Manny B tail tracks from Nassau St line (pretty sure its this one) or something else entirely?

Clarke July 14, 2011 - 5:14 pm

Answered my own question via the Ch 2 text. Still a lot of interesting reading.


Leave a Comment