Salon, on its Dream Cities blog, tackles a question near and dear to my heart: Why does it take so damn long to build a new subway system? As the MTA already has nearly 17 years worth of documents on its website for only the current attempt at a Second Ave. Subway, by the time construction on Phase 1 alone is wrapped, it will have been over 20 years from the release of the initial scoping document in 1995 to revenue service in 2016. At that rate, it’ll take 80 more years for the other parts of the subway extension to see the light of day.
So what, then, takes so long? According to Salon’s Will Doig, seven different elements, many of them interrelated, slow down transit expansion plans in the United States. Up front, he pinpoints the obvious. By combining funding from various sources — the feds, states, cities, the bureaucracy slow distribution of money, and oftentimes, there isn’t enough money guaranteed up front to see megaprojects through to completion. He also pays heed to the physical challenges of working around 100-year-old city infrastructure that was never properly mapped, and he fingers a societal addiction to cars that often serves to marginalize transit. He certainly isn’t wrong there.
In my opinion, though, his two key elements concern mismanagement and what he terms basic fairness. With a small group of companies qualified to build subways, mismanagement runs rampant. That is a problem that should be addressed if other SAS phases receive funding. The fairness element though is a tough one. He writes:
Good public transit is a cherished ideal of many progressives. Ironically, progressive values can end up making transit construction take longer. Part of the reason we don’t build as fast as China does is because we have workers’ unions, ADA compliance rules, and environmental concerns that require time-consuming impact studies. “If we didn’t have to put elevators everywhere and we imported non-union Mexican immigrants to do the work, you could build a lot more of everything,” says Duke, who hastens to add that he’s not in favor of that. Good, affordable transit is a human rights issue too, though, and in many ways the common link in our desire for healthier, less wasteful cities that serve everyone equally.
Many transit advocates may whisper that the fairness balance has tipped too far to the other side. The MTA issued its notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement for the Second Ave. Subway in March of 2001. The FEIS saw the light of day 38 months later in May of 2004, and the authority had to further revise its assessment in 2009 to find no material impact when it had to redesign station configurations at 72nd and 86th St. That is a time-consuming and costly process that should be streamlined as well.
Doig doesn’t dwell on another issue — NIMBYism — that can often stop subway expansion projects in their metaphoric tracks before they move much beyond an idea on paper. Lawsuits and community outrage can slow down worthwhile projects as well. Still, his list of seven can serve as a primer for readers of this site who want to know just why it’s taking so long for such a short subway extension underneath Second Ave. to become a reality.