Home Second Avenue Subway Feds double down – and hedge – on 2018 opening date for 2nd Ave. Subway

Feds double down – and hedge – on 2018 opening date for 2nd Ave. Subway

by Benjamin Kabak

It’s no secret that the MTA has long struggled with opening dates for their capital projects. From staircase replacement projects to supposedly normal state-of-good-repair work like the Culver Viaduct rehabilitation to the 18 month-and-counting drama at the site of the 7 line’s future 34th St. terminus, the MTA simply cannot deliver on time. Whether it’s due to union featherbedding, contractor corruption, or the complexity of large-scale infrastructure work, the problem affects the agency’s credibility and New Yorkers’ collective ability to enjoy a subway system.

Along the Far West Side, the MTA’s troubles with getting the 7 line extension past the finish line and more comical than anything else. No one lives there yet so lives haven’t been disrupted and promises that were broken were made originally only to convention goers. The real estate interests constructing the Hudson Yards development will have their subway long before the buildings are complete.

The Upper East Side though is a horse of a different color. The MTA originally hoped to finish Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway in 2011 and then planned for a mid-2015 debut. As early as 2009, the agency had to push back the projected completion date to 2016 with a threat that work would continue into 2017. For Upper East Side residents who have lived with construction for nearly a decade already, further delays now would be infuriating.

Meanwhile, in 2009 and again in 2011, the Federal Transit Administration disputed the MTA’s timeline. While the agency pledged to open the $4.4 billion Phase 1 project by the end of 2016, the feds viewed a $5.5 billion extension opening in early 2018 as the most likely scenario. Over the past five years, the MTA has doubled down on the 2016 date while New Yorkers, rightfully skeptical of the lessons learned (or not learned, as the case may be) from the 7 line, still aren’t surprised by the feds’ timeline.

Yesterday, in prepared remarks first identified by Andrew Siff of NBC 4 and later in questions posed by the House Oversight Committee, FTA officials first doubled down on the 2018 timeline but then later walked it back. Federal officials acknowledged that the MTA’s 2016 revenue service date is achievable, but both the MTA and FTA seemed to agree tacitly that it will take a concerted oversight effort by agency officials to realize this earlier date.

The FTA’s pre-printed statement is decidedly less optimistic than the FTA’s subsequent comments during the hearing. Matthew Welbes, executive direct of the Federal Transit Administration, had this to say in his prepared remarks [pdf]:

In February 2015, FTA and the MTA executed an amended FFGA for the Second Avenue Subway Phase I project reflecting the changes in cost and schedule to the project. The amended FFGA includes a cost of $5.57 billion, and a revenue service date of February 28, 2018. As in the original FFGA, the amount of Federal Capital Investment Grant funding remains unchanged, with the local project sponsor covering the cost overruns.

In government-speak, that paragraph means the Full Funding Grant Agreement between the FTA and MTA acknowledged significantly higher costs and a delayed opening date. The MTA — or in this case, New York State — will foot the bill on cost overruns.

During subsequent question by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Welbes walked back some of the FTA’s statements. When asked about the differing timelines, he provided the following explanation:

“When we executed the revised Full Funding Grant agreement in March, the schedule is that the project is supposed to open by by February of 2018. And that was based on what we agreed to with the MTA. If the MTA can deliver the project sooner, we would be proud to see that happen. It looks like the project is trending, based on our data, toward an opening of closer to, maybe early in, sometime in 2017. So the truth is probably somewhere between December of 2016 and our February of 2018 opening date. If the MTA does some of the aggressive schedule management steps that they have planned, they may very well achieve that December date.”

A revenue service start date early in 2017 wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for the MTA. True, the feds’ outcome means a 30-block, $5.5-billion subway that takes nearly a decade to construct. True, those costs are higher, on a per mile basis, than any other comparable project. But for the MTA, a delay of only a few months would represent a significant improvement over its experiences on the West Side.

The MTA in response, meanwhile, defended its own timeline. “?The MTA reports our projections for megaproject cost and completion every month based on our own understanding of the work done so far and our best estimates of the work still to be done,” the agency said in a statement. They insist that the Second Ave. Subway’s first riders will be able to ride a 96th Street-bound Q train before the year is out.

For her part, Rep. Maloney urged the FTA and MTA to find a way to get this project completed by the end of next year. “I think,” she said, “that would build up a lot of credibility by everyone.” That’s no small point considering the MTA’s lobbying for nearly $15 billion in additional capital spending right now, but the concern is a missed deadline. Do you believe the MTA or the feds? And what happens when the Second Ave. Subway doesn’t open by the end of December of 2016? It’s a future no one wants to contemplate but one that isn’t too far off right now.

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John-2 June 9, 2015 - 12:16 am

Not having the elevators going diagonally ought to cut at least a couple of months off the completion date for the SAS, based on the experiences so far with the ones at Hudson Yards.

Tim June 9, 2015 - 9:05 am

I live near the 86th/2nd station, and they’ve got a lot of above-ground work going on. You can look into the pit through holes in the plywood surrounding the entrances, just from what’s visible you can see that they have a legit shot of opening in 2016.

I’d guess March-Jun of 2017 is probably where it will end up, though. Hopefully they learned their lesson re: the fire alarm systems issues with the 7 extension.

Christopher Stephens June 9, 2015 - 12:07 pm

If you live near that station (as do I), I highly recommend taking advantage of the opportunity to tour the construction site. Once a month local residents can sign up for tours, led by the head of capital construction for the MTA, Michael Horodniceanu. It’s fascinating and well worth the effort.

Quirk June 9, 2015 - 11:58 pm

But there’s like 50+ escalators and over 15+ elevators to “inspect” in 2nd Ave. subway stops….what a nightmare compared to one station in the far west side

Jerrold June 9, 2015 - 5:08 pm

Notice how whenever they want to use some “weird” new technology, there is trouble. Didn’t the 63rd St. subway line originally have some new kind of tracks? If I remember correctly, they eventually had to be torn up and replaced with traditional trackage.
The diagonal elevators at 34th St./11th Ave. – same story. Weird new technology, lots of trouble.

VLM June 9, 2015 - 5:20 pm

Incline elevators aren’t some weird new technology. They’ve been around elsewhere for decades.

Jerrold June 9, 2015 - 6:23 pm

Then why are they having so much trouble getting them ready for service? Are you sure that they are not some new variation on incline elevators?

Brooklynite June 9, 2015 - 11:01 pm

There are off-the-shelf models from overseas firms, but the version I have heard is that some bureaucrat decided that Buy America rules required the elevator buttons to be made in USA. That, among other such “improvements,” is what’s causing the problem.

Chris C June 10, 2015 - 5:20 am

Correct and this has been documented several times on this very blog.

These inclined elevators work all over the world with very little problem.

It is down to US demanded (and actually totally unnecessary) changes that are causing the problems.

Eric June 10, 2015 - 5:37 am

That’s why the US is turning into a third world country – because the Republicans want any project with government involvement to fail, and the Democrats hold each project hostage to a thousand bureaucrats each representing a different interest group (union workers, minorities, environmentalists) none of who have society’s overall interest in mind.

Bolwerk June 10, 2015 - 4:42 pm

Minorities are trying to stop infrastructure projects?

Eric June 11, 2015 - 3:40 am

Minority employment quotas.

Bolwerk June 11, 2015 - 8:44 am

…are effectively illegal in the absence of a court mandate demanding some kind of remediation. Unless you’re the federal government, which sort of exempts itself from its own rules.

Pierre Ferrago June 9, 2015 - 8:44 am

Imagine doing 5 stations in Phase 3. By that time, they will be excavating tunnels by laser.

BoerumBum June 9, 2015 - 8:56 am

Frankly, I’m less concerned with the opening date of Phase I than the break-ground dates of Phases II & III. I’m worried that after the last few subway expansion projects (which were major compared to recent history, but minor in the grand scheme of things), Albany might decide that we’re good for the next 30 years.

SEAN June 9, 2015 - 10:26 am

And that’s why Albany is out of tuch with NYC’s needs.

Jason June 9, 2015 - 10:45 am

The following issues are often cited, but little discussed causes for delays: (1) “union featherbedding” (i.e., corruption), (2) “contractor corruption,” (3) “the complexity of large-scale infrastructure work” (i.e., competency), and (4) “New York exceptionalism.” I think the discussion on this site needs to move forward on thinking about where the problems arise.

While not discounting corruption, I think there is a large role for the issue of complexity / competency. The cut-and-cover method of building the early subway system, in which whole neighborhoods were ripped open, must have presented fewer engineering challenges. And certain challenges were addressed under a far more laissez-faire regime in which more risk was accepted throughout construction.

Ben often points out that other transit systems construct new lines at far less cost per mile. I wonder how transparent these entities are with respect to their costs, and whether certain costs are hidden through complex governmental accounting. Why question cost data from those projects? The MTA is far from the only entity that misses deadlines and budget projections for large complex engineering projects. One can look around the world at both governmental and private sector projects that have these problems. This suggests to me that certain engineering projects push the limits of human ability for design and management, and that new techniques need to be developed in order to achieve better results on this front.

Naturally, one wonders about corruption, but other than posited as suggestions, I’ve yet to see any allegation based on some information. It strikes me that this would be a good issue for the New York Attorney General to investigate, so I wonder why no such investigation has ever been launched.

rustonite June 9, 2015 - 11:44 am

add (5) American gold-plating. the Second Ave Subway could have been done years ago if they had done a cut and cover, just slap down some rails and bare bones stations and move on with our lives. Instead they’re building stations that pharaohs could be buried in.

Berk32 June 9, 2015 - 12:11 pm

You may be confusing SAS with the PATH terminal.

Larry Littlefield June 9, 2015 - 2:37 pm

Union/contractor: given us a $1 billion change order and we’ll be done in a year.

Refuse, and we’ve got these private jobs to finish first. We can always get to you when we feel like it.

Jason June 9, 2015 - 3:55 pm

At the very least, that suggests an issue with contracting, and the behavior of construction companies. If true, that indicates that the process by which the MTA protects itself in the negotiation process is inadequate. However, I suspect that the federal government is involved in the contracting process, so that would surprise me that there is insufficient legal protections against such situations.

It would also suggest that hiring private construction companies, rather than operating its own heavy construction capabilities in-house is inefficient. I’m a bit skeptical of the MTA operating as a quasi-construction company, notwithstanding decades of heavy construction ahead. Moreover, it begs the question, would that minimize issues of corruption, or simply move them in-house?

Larry Littlefield June 9, 2015 - 3:58 pm

Sloth and arrogance tends to set in, and privileges and unfairness entrenched, over the long run in any private or public sector organization. But the slothful and corrupt private sector organizations disappear and are replaced — unless they get their hooks in the government.

I’d say that if Kelois gets its house in order in Boston “privatize” the LIRR and dump everyone there. Meanwhile, “publicize” more capital work at NYC transit including signal jobs. Transit workers actually do a lot of the capital work as it is.

Herb Lehman June 9, 2015 - 10:50 am

Based on Hudson Yards and Fulton Transit Center, I’d be absolutely stunned if the Second Avenue Subway opens before 2019 or 2020. I hope I’m wrong.

As someone who uses the 63/Lexington station a lot, I just hope that we’ll be able to take advantage of extra exits and stairways at 63rd Street and 3rd Avenue before the rest of the line opens.

BruceNY June 9, 2015 - 1:47 pm

As someone who uses the 63/Lexington station a lot, I just hope that we’ll be able to take advantage of extra exits and stairways at 63rd Street and 3rd Avenue before the rest of the line opens..

As a resident of York Avenue who’s been doing that walk all the way to Lexington/63rd for over twenty years, all I can say is “From Your Mouth to God’s Ears!”. Imagine, $5 Billion and how many years later, and all the Second Avenue Subway will do for me is reduce my commute by one block. . . I moved into this neighborhood in my twenties, and will be 50 years old (at least) by the time they figure out how to get all the escalators and elevators running (and you know that’s what’s going to be the final cause of another delayed opening).

Tower18 June 12, 2015 - 10:29 am

I had never used that station prior to construction beginning…was the 3rd Av exit open before, and closed for construction? Or was it intended all along, but never built until now? It seems like such a no-brainer, especially since all the other Lex stations have 3rd Av exits.

Brooklynite June 12, 2015 - 7:29 pm

It was constructed, mezzanines, escalators, and everything else, when the rest of the station was built in the 1980s. It was simply never opened.

Brooklynite June 12, 2015 - 7:37 pm

Actually let me clarify that. It was constructed, but finishing touches for passenger use were not applied. I’m not sure how much was actually done, but it was well on the way to being openable even though it wasn’t there yet.

Kevin Walsh June 9, 2015 - 11:26 am

Years ago, then-Jets’ owner Leon Hess said when he hired Jeff Kotite, who won 4 games in two seasons, “I’m an old man. I want to win now.”

I’m 57 and knocking on the door of old age. Will I see the SAS and ESA in my lifetime?

I’m betting 2020 on the former, 2025 on the latter.

D in Bushwick June 9, 2015 - 1:13 pm

Not another single dollar should be approved by Congress for the MTA until this completely corrupt and inadequate government agency is shut down, all of its leaders purged and a new fully accountable system is put in place.
Retire all of these bozos and start over!

VLM June 9, 2015 - 1:16 pm

If you think that is or will solve the problem, you know very little about transit ops in America right now. I don’t mean to be mean about it, but this is just a silly comment.

Webster June 9, 2015 - 4:16 pm

…but this is exactly how most people in the city think. It absolutely confounds me that everyone I know in the city stops their complaints at, “the MTA is so inept…the MTA raises fares and I get no improvements in return…”

Fares are telegraphed to go up years in advance…they are raised because funding is insufficient, and despite this, people still act surprised and indignant…they need to bitch at their representatives and the governor, not the MTA.

On one hand, I don’t think the agency does an adequate job of explaining that making stations “look pretty” is a bit far on the list and actually improving signals (and all the other nuts-and-bolts) is at the top. People can’t see that, and they don’t know it.

On the other, it’s become apparent that many people in the city don’t pay much attention to what goes on in Albany…there’s no other way Cuomo and the Legislature would be able to get away with doing what they do.

Eric June 9, 2015 - 6:02 pm

Oh, funding is sufficient. MTA gets more funding than similar agencies anywhere else in the world. They just do less with their funding.

Fool June 10, 2015 - 12:50 pm

They over account for ever action (huge cost) and MTA civil servants generally fit the mold of being ineffectual and under productive.

So under productive managers, under productive laborers whose primary job is paperwork first, work second.

Bolwerk June 9, 2015 - 4:48 pm

That just means New York gets less of its own money back from Congress. There are three possible ways to describe it: cruel, stupid, or cruel and stupid.

JJ June 9, 2015 - 7:01 pm Reply
Philip Utley June 10, 2015 - 6:23 pm

Re: the anti union comments on this otherwise good site. There used to be a requirement that all trains (not urban mass transit) have a fireman in addition to an engineer. When dieselelectrics replaced steam locomotives, this was attacked as featherbedding and the requirement abolished and the firemen fired. So we got the Metrolink disaster and the Metro North Hudson Line disaster and now the Amtrak Philadelphia disaster. Abetted by the congressional Neanderthals who denied funding for Positive Train Control.

Bolwerk June 10, 2015 - 8:09 pm

Yes, let’s bring back the fireman.

Every bus should have a fireman too.

Anonymous June 11, 2015 - 9:02 am

Let’s also bring back doormen on the subway. One conductor isn’t enough!


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