Home Second Avenue Subway A T for (Phase) Two

A T for (Phase) Two

by Benjamin Kabak

Over the last seven years, two questions from readers appear most often in my inbox. Once involves the Q train. What will happen, Queens residents wonder, when Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway opens and the Q heads to the Upper East Side instead of Astoria? The MTA hasn’t said yet what their plans are for the routing, but I’ve long believed that the W will return to service in some form. Astoria won’t lose train service, and we’ll probably see some trains terminate at Whitehall and some cross the Manhattan Bridge from both lines.

The second question always concerns future phases of the subway line. Now that we’re a little over three years away from the official launch of a subway line that’s been in the planning stages since the waning days of World War I, everyone wants to know what’s next. Will the MTA build out Phase 2? When will the subway reach Hanover Square and the South St. Seaport? What about extensions in the Bronx or Brooklyn or a spur across 125th St. in Manhattan?

Current MTA head Tom Prendergast said he hopes the full line is finished by 2035 — which would be close to the 100th anniversary of the start of construction — but odds are good he won’t be in the job that long. So what is next? Recently, Dana Rubinstein, Capital New York’s transit reporter, called me with exactly those queries. She was working on a longer piece about the future of the Second Ave. Subway and asked all the right questions about the project’s future. The piece hit the Internet on Wednesday evening and contains some juicy bits for those keeping a close eye on the Second Ave. sagas.

First up is a brief tidbit about the MTA’s future plans. As I’ve noted before, the next phases of the Second Ave. Subway have been noticeably absent from the agency’s latest round of planning documents. The full line gets a mention in the 20-Year Needs Assessment, but the capital planning has focused around behind-the-scenes state-of-good-repair work. Still, that doesn’t mean the MTA isn’t at least thinking about the future subway.

MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg told Rubinstein that the agency will “update the environmental impact statement in order to do Phase II, because it was done years ago and we want to make sure that all of the conditions still apply.” Lisberg doesn’t know when this update will happen, but it’s something that the MTA should consider starting soon. The FEIS was published in May of 2004, and most of the work for that document had been completed over the previous five years. At least, the MTA will have to issue a Statement of No Change will supporting materials. (For what it’s worth, Lisberg also said that Phase 2 doesn’t necessarily have to come next, but considering the practical connection Phase 2 offers at 125th St. and the engineering complexities of Phases 3 and 4, I’d bet real money that Phase 2 will be next.)

Beyond that, though, there are some very practical reasons to continue construction, and these reasons cast doubt on the wisdom of the current phased approach. Rubinstein writes:

At a recent breakfast, I asked Tom Prendergast, the authority’s new chairman, whether funding for the Second Avenue Subway Phase II would be in that capital plan. “Yes, I think one of the things that we need to be able to do is for the system expansion projects, either complete them or continue on the road to completion,” he said. “If you take a look at the fact that the original bond issue for the Second Avenue Subway was 1936, you know, it would be nice to be able to get that project done within 100 years of when it was first thought of.”

…Advocates argue, optimistically, that the next phase ought to begin as soon as the first one is completed so as to avoid having to re-alienate the neighborhoods the subway will be serving. “If everyone goes home, you have to destruct the area all over again,” said [the RPA’s Richard] Barone. “It takes years to start all over again.”

There are other reasons to believe that starting up again, once the construction has stopped, is a good idea. “What is more of a factor is keeping the project staff in place” who have built up the necessary expertise to build a subway through a very dense part of Manhattan, according to Lisberg.

For the MTA, the phased approach has proven costly because the agency is going to have to build out another launch box and reengage tunnel boring machines. That’s the bargain they made with Sheldon Silver though to get Phase 1 started. Losing the institutional memory and the infrastructure to build a subway system would be even more costly.

In speaking with Rubinstein, I thought that a 50-50 chance of Phase 2 starting soon after Phase 1 was optimistic, and I’ll stand by that assessment. Rep. Carolyn Maloney has made some noises about continuing the project, but until the grants are in place and the studies are completed, construction will dry up when Phase 1 is finished. Will the Second Ave. Subway be anything more than a stub or can Manhattan finally, after a century, get the subway line it needs?

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shawn October 24, 2013 - 3:02 am

A populist mayor voted in by the 21% of NYC that lives below the poverty line. A subway that serves the richest 1%ers on the upper east side. The populist rhetoric against expensive transportation for the most fortunate writes itself.

It was 50/50 going into the primaries, but tiny now that we see our new mayor.

BoerumBum October 24, 2013 - 8:16 am

I’m not sure if I understand your point… is it that Bill de Blasio, under the auspices of championing the lower classes, will prevent the expansion of the 2nd Ave Subway to Spanish Harlem, because the residents of that neighborhood are too rich?

John-2 October 24, 2013 - 9:44 am

As far as funding goes, the MTA should be ready to put forward a plan at the time Phase I is set to open, since the benefits of the new line will be evident not just to Upper East Side passengers, but also those IRT riders coming in from the Bronx or who are still closer to the 4/5/6 who’ll see their trips stop looking like those images of trains in India with people on the roofs or pouring out the windows.

Right now the benefits of the SAS are still in the hypothetical stage for many people. Once they become a reality, going ahead at that moment with appropriating more $$$ for Phase II will have a better chance of support (which would also be helped by the MTA mentioning that two segments of Phase II have been sitting their waiting for trains for 40 years).

Bolwerk October 24, 2013 - 11:16 am


And this is exactly how people shouldn’t think. SAS, whatever its shortcomings, is beneficial to the whole city and the region. Even things like the Rockaway Line benefit the whole region.

Nathanael October 25, 2013 - 12:38 am

Spanish Harlem is not an upper-class neighborhood. Furthermore, the 2nd Avenue Subway Phase II provides congestion relief for the commuters taking the IRT from even poorer neighborhoods in the Bronx.

I really do hope nobody thinks the way “shawn” thinks they do.

tacony October 24, 2013 - 10:14 am

It’d be great to see the next mayor embrace something akin to the “30/10 Initiative” in LA, where 30 years of transit construction is completed in 10 years. One can only dream.

Alon Levy October 25, 2013 - 3:48 am

That’s Phase 1. Phase 2 serves East Harlem, the poorest neighborhood of Manhattan and one of the poorest in the city.

Nyland8 October 24, 2013 - 7:48 am

Long before 2035 rolls around, we will have spent Trillion$ as a nation building weapons for wars we’ll never fight.

In a sane world, every reasonable subway expansion imaginable would already be well underway.

Notsosmart October 24, 2013 - 8:23 am

Nyland8, that is what vexes me the most about this country. Just the willful ignorance of the populace about insane expenditures on weapons systems that are completely unnecessary and a waste of money. The F-22, F-35, super-duper fighter planes designed to fight enemies that do not exist! A new aircraft carrier, the Gerald T. Ford, which cost at least 13.5 billion… Meanwhile returning veterans go homeless and jobless, roads and bridges are falling apart, and the public transport system is mostly a joke compared to the rest of the civilized world.

anon_coward October 24, 2013 - 8:55 am

we spent just as much or more on weapons never meant to be used in the good old days when most of the subway was built out

BBnet3000 October 24, 2013 - 9:54 am

Most of the subway was built before WWII, so no, we did not.

It was also less reliant on government capital (and therefore political priorities) back then, though a not-insignificant portion was built by the city itself.

Eric Brasure October 24, 2013 - 9:56 am

Well, that’s just not true:


Jeff October 24, 2013 - 10:11 am

Yeah, but keep doing it for decades and eventually you have the problems we have today.

David Brown October 24, 2013 - 8:29 am

The problem that a lot of people make when looking at the Second Ave Subway (and a lot of large projects as well) is they see it as a Stand-Alone within some kind of vacuum (the Shawn remark about SAS and the “1%”is a perfect example of this). Things does not happen by accident. For example: After all these years, does anyone really believe that “Lo & Behold” the City can get Newtown Barge Park and Box Street Park finished by 2016, or is it related to a key vote in the City Council on Greenpoint Landing & 77 Commercial St? Well there is something in writing about the Condos being used to help with Park Maintenance, so draw you own conclusion?.
Anyone who has taking the time to actually read and not simply troll this Blog, knows SAS is necessary, if for no other reason (and there are a lot of reasons for it) East Side Access, and what the effect of that will be on the Lexington Ave Line is a big one. I am of the belief that SAS (and that means Phase IV, which I had doubts about before), will happen. I found the comment about “For what it’s worth, Lisberg also said that Phase 2 doesn’t necessarily have to come next….” Doing Phase III before Phase II may very well be a price to be paid in return for the passage of the Midtown Rezoning, as well as the reality of the Election (this could be the Transit Element of it). Basically, De Blasio can comeback later and say, “How I made sure that “Working Class People Came Over the Needs of the 1%.” Which essentially neuters Shawn’s point. The other alternative, is to do Phase II first (as Ben believes). For me, I would love to see Phase III done first, and it is very much related to ESA & Real Estate Development (starting with SPURA heading due North on 1st & 2nd Avenue’s), and obviously not from a perspective of “Class Warfare.”

Nathanael October 25, 2013 - 12:40 am

Possible. Phase II is needed due to the massive overcrowding of the Lexington Avenue Line north of Grand Central, however. The interception of the line at 125th St. will relieve it. Phase III relieves a different part of the Lexington Avenue Line, but it won’t be nearly as effective without Phase II.

Phase II should also be the cheapest to build, what with all the tunnels which already exist.

MH October 24, 2013 - 8:55 am

Ok, with the Q Train, I think it will be run in 2 sections (like the A train in Queens). The W will not return.

Eric Brasure October 24, 2013 - 9:57 am

I don’t see that happening.

BBnet3000 October 24, 2013 - 9:58 am

I could see the Q to Ditmars being a rush hour only branch. I dont know how much all day demand there is, but during rush hour both the N and Q are packed.

Jeff October 24, 2013 - 10:16 am

It will be its own route, rush hour or not. It’s not going to be the Q unless they run something up on 2nd ave.

The MTA is not spending $4 billion on a new line to one of the most congested neighborhoods and serve it like the Lefferts or Rockaway lines.

ajedrez October 24, 2013 - 12:29 pm

Exactly. With half a million passengers a day, it’s going to need a dedicated line.

Likely, the Q would run up there, and the W would return to serve Astoria.

Another slight possibility is that the W is the line running up Second Avenue weekdays, while the N & Q continue as they do now (and then the Q is extended there weekends and nights). The advantage would be that UES residents get direct access to Lower Manhattan (versus having to pile onto the 4 & 5). The disadvantage of course, is that you’re going to have a ton of switching around 49th Street, which is why the Q is the most likely option, as the express tracks at 57th Street feed directly into the SAS.

MH October 24, 2013 - 10:26 am

I could see rush hour Q service to/from Astoria as a possibility as well.

lawhawk October 24, 2013 - 9:23 am

Interesting that there’s a suggestion that Phase 3 might get done ahead of Phase 2 (going south towards Hanover Square, rather than North towards the Bronx and Harlem).

Frankly, it doesn’t matter to me which phase goes first, as long as the feds and state can get the funding in place to keep going. If we put the shovels down, there’s no telling when the political will will be there to get funding for the next phase.

It means a much greater commitment from Albany too. That means putting Cuomo on the spot and telling him to put the state money where his claims for being about improving infrastructure in the City is.

After all, we’re talking about a subway line that would, once finished, have ridership rivaling those of entire city subway systems all by itself. The 4-5-6 moves more than the entire systems in some cities, and this will not only spur further development on the East Side, but the City and MTA need to translate that development into funds to go towards infrastructure development.

But there’s something that raises eyebrows – why is there the need for still more studies for the next phase? Were they not done previously, or has the situation so significantly changed that they need to be updated or changed entirely? The need for the 2d Ave line hasn’t changed, and if anything it’s the ridership on the 4-5-6 that indicates the need for getting this done.

David Brown October 24, 2013 - 10:22 am

Lawhawk, Hanover Square is Phase IV, and the Second Ave Station (F) would be the Phase III terminus. If Albany & Washington agree, it makes far more political (get Phase III agreed to and funded, while SAS Champion Carolyn Maloney is still in Office, and before “Queen Bee NIMBY” Gail Brewer becomes Manhattan Borough President), economic and geographic sense. If you think about it, Phase III, means a very quick trip from Brooklyn to Midtown (L) to (T), or (F) to (T)(depending on where in Brooklyn you are coming from). I can tell you that some of the biggest Development Projects are actually underway (or are planned) for the Area between East 14th Street and 63rd Street (Including a New UN Building (something important from Washington’s Point of View)). Now do I think those “Fat Cat” Ambassador’s will trade their “Stretch Limo’s” for the ‘T” Train? No, but there is a lot of Development going on in that area (do not forget the Sheldon Solow “First Ave Mud Pit” either (that needs to be Developed as well)), and getting another Subway Connection would make life a lot easier. Need I mention, that Extell bought a huge Portfolio of Real Estate belonging to Frank Ring around East 23rd Street, so seeing Extell doing something there (like they are on 14th between Ave A & B) is very possible, and once again, need I mention, East Side Access. Basically, I think Phase III brings the biggest bang for the buck, and I hope that is the approach. Once we see what happens with the Eastside Midtown Rezoning, and how much (if any) actually is agreed to, then we will get an idea what is happening next with SAS.

Bgriff October 24, 2013 - 10:04 am

The other reason to do Phase 2 before Phase 3 is that Phase 3 requires introducing the T designation and service…which, cool as that would be, would add a lot of operational complexity that could be avoided by building Phase 2 and keeping the SAS just with the Q line for the time being.

Jeff October 24, 2013 - 10:18 am

Phase 2 also utilizes existing infrastructure, and therefore will be a lot cheaper and easier to fund.

Benjamin Kabak October 24, 2013 - 10:21 am

Yes, no, no. The initial cost estimates for Phase 2 were nearly identical to Phase 1 because, apparently, it’s not the tunneling that’s driving the costs but the construction of station caverns and auxiliary structures. Phase 2 should be easier and quicker but it won’t be significantly cheaper without attacking other costs.

BruceNY October 24, 2013 - 5:00 pm

I would suggest splitting Phase II into two parts. Finish and open the 106th & 116th St. Stations up first and then continue on building towards 125th Street. With significant sections of tunneling along this stretch already finished, get those two stations open quickly and let East Harlem reap the benefits sooner, rather than wait for the most difficult portion (125th) to get built. Adding in one more interlocking (at 116th) so trains can turn around there should not be an issue.

Benjamin Kabak October 24, 2013 - 5:11 pm

One of the biggest problems with SAS as it’s currently conceived is the phasing. Let’s stop splitting it up into and more phases that drive up the costs.

BruceNY October 24, 2013 - 6:18 pm

While I see your point about the disadvantage of phasing (wouldn’t it have been smarter to let the TBM’s continue downtown rather than pull them out & dismantle them?)
how much extra would it cost to open up two stations that are already close to being connected to 96th St. a couple years earlier rather than let them sit empty and unused for several more years while 125th St. (one of the most difficult pieces of the entire route) gets dug out?

AlexB October 24, 2013 - 6:39 pm

It does seem like the vast majority of the cost of phase 2 is going to be the station at 215th. Seems like phase 2 could proceed as planned, but with phased openings of 106th and 116th happening much sooner than 125th.

Nathanael October 25, 2013 - 12:44 am

106th & 116th are still gonna be cheaper, because, what station caverns? This is cut-and-cover.

125th will be a bear. I do seriously suggest treating it as three separate pieces given the way the existing tunnels are set up; the three sites can work practically independently.

Phase III and IV, however, should be drilled in one go.

Nathanael October 25, 2013 - 12:46 am

In fact, given what a bear 125th will be, it makes sense to design the subway all the way west to the Hudson River and all the way north to the Bronx and tunnel that as one project, rather than the current proposal to build ‘just’ 125th.

BruceNY October 25, 2013 - 11:59 am

I agree–the line should definitely continue west on 125th–connecting to all the other north-south lines. Imagine how much easier it would be for people coming from Riverdale, Washington Hts., the GWB Bus Station, etc. to get to points on the East Side.

Eric October 27, 2013 - 10:47 am

“it’s not the tunneling that’s driving the costs but the construction of station caverns and auxiliary structures”

My impression was that in past decades this wasn’t the case.

What percentage of the SAS cost is for ADA compliance?

Quirk October 24, 2013 - 11:27 am

Please blog write — do not discuss which subway line will go to route xyz. You’ll get those deranged posters from that transit forums to display their absurd reouting proposals. (As if they have any control and/or influence). This is a very respectful blog and should stay that way.

Jerrold October 24, 2013 - 4:10 pm

But, people are still entitled to express their opinions.
And it is very typical of transit buffs to have opinions about which train routes should go where.
I do NOT see who is being disrespected when people do that.

Chris C October 24, 2013 - 5:09 pm


And no doubt when people first suggested the subway at all they were thought to be deranged – people traveling underground ? how will they breath?

In 1825 when the first passenger railway started between Stockton and Darlington in the North East of England it was suggested by eminent doctors that going faster than 30 miles per hour would result in instant suffocation

Lots of very good and practical ideas often start from the ideas of the deranged !

Jerrold October 24, 2013 - 4:00 pm

Slightly off-topic, but very amusing,
this is from today’s “weekend changes” E-mail from Transit:

“12:01 AM Sat to 5 AM Mon, Oct 26 – 28
Brooklyn-bound C trains run express from 59 St Canal to St.”

So I guess one station is called “59th St. Canal”, and another station is simply called “St.”. Maybe THAT station is located at some mysterious street without a name.

AlexB October 24, 2013 - 6:45 pm

Based on phase 1 costs, tunneling is only around 25% or less of the total, but building the launch boxes are a huge expense and burden on the neighborhood. In retrospect, it seems like the entire tunnel from 125th to Hanover could have built as one thing relatively cheaply and then the tracks and stations could be added as the different phases progressed and money became available. They could take this approach for phases 3 and 4 and build the whole tunnel to Hanover in one fell swoop. Considering the huge cost of the stations, a large bore tunnel should also be considered.

Nyland8 October 24, 2013 - 8:08 pm

It’s worth keeping in mind that the efficiency of TBM work is a function of tunneling through the same substrate. If you’re traversing nothing but the same rock, you just mobilize your TBM and go for it – BUT – if you’re in rock, then soil, then mixed rock in soil, you may need an entirely different machine. Or at least you’d have to retrofit the cutters, change the shoring method, adapt to removing different spoils, etc. It becomes a far more costly, stop-and-go type of tunneling.

When you’re boring through competent rock, you can proceed without supporting the tunnel. Our local mica schist has a high compressive strength and will support itself. When you’re boring through soil, it collapses behind the machine as you progress. You may have to utilize ground freezing, or consolidation grouting, or some other “ground improvement” technique. Boring through the same type of bedrock is relatively uncomplicated, and I suspect it’s one of the reason the Phase I tubes are at the depth they are.

Phase I was largely through bedrock – Manhattan schist – which lies near the surface parallel to Central Park, and through much of what we erroneously call “midtown”. It is for that reason that we have a skyline located there. It is much cheaper to throw up a skyscraper when bedrock is only 30′ down than it is when bedrock is more than 200′ below grade.

The reason Manhattan has two skylines is not simply because of zoning. Competent rock near the World Trade Center is only 70′ below grade. But the same bedrock through much of Phase III territory might be 2 or 3 times that depth … so different types of tunneling will probably be required on the way down to Hanover Sq.

Of course, in principle, the expense of re-mobilization is high and should be avoided if at all possible. But it isn’t quite as simple as just leaving the machine in the ground and heading south.

Ricky Tinkelman October 26, 2013 - 12:51 pm

Of course in politics, “just follow the money trail” ! The costs of building the SAS, are the income for the contruction contractors, which are ready and willing to be paid generously, but the politicians are not ready to announce who is getting the gov’t largess, YET !

Common Sense April 25, 2014 - 1:52 pm

All this talk about poverty shouldn’t matter. In some senses it does because it seems like the rich will always be taken care of before the poor or “middle class.” (see housing developments/rent prices). But those in the “poor” neighborhoods need the subway too. Contrary to popular belief, there are working class people in these “poor” neighborhoods and students that actually get an education that would benefit from the extension of the Second Avenue subway in phase two. And, there are already sections north of 96th Street that have tunnels that were built in the late 60’s and early 70’s. So this phase theoretically shouldn’t take as much time and money as phase one.


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