Home Second Avenue Subway Underneath 2nd Avenue, MTA faces a one-year clock as ‘moderate risk of delay’ emerges

Underneath 2nd Avenue, MTA faces a one-year clock as ‘moderate risk of delay’ emerges

by Benjamin Kabak
The MTA will have to hit these critical milestones to open Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway by the end of 2016. (Source: MTA)

The MTA will have to hit these critical milestones to open Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway by the end of 2016. (Source: MTA)

No matter the scope of the project, the MTA is not known for wrapping up construction on time. We’ve all seen staircases to subway stations closed for months longer than announced as work drags on, and the MTA’s 20-month delay in opening the 7 line extension seemed to evolve from exasperating to the butt of a joke and back. Now as December’s end draws near and 2016 lurks on the horizon, the MTA’s most public deadline yet — the completion of Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway — looms large, and the agency will have to race against time to open this northern extension of the Q train on time.

The MTA’s struggles with opening the Second Ave. Subway are well documented. Setting aside the 80-year history of this project, since 2005, the MTA has, at certain points, projected completion in each of 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. Amidst a rash of bad publicity and serious doubts over Capital Construction’s project management skills — doubts that still linger today — the agency vowed to open the first phase by the end of 2016, and even though the federal government has projected an early 2018 opening date, the MTA has not moved off of its promise to deliver a Second Ave. Subway before 2017.

With one year left, the MTA’s endgame is finally coming into view, and the agency is going to need to have a lot of things go right to meet that December 2016 promise. It hasn’t yet moved off its deadline, but in MTA Board materials released this weekend [pdf], the agency offered a glimpse at challenges that remain. Furthermore, the MTA’s Independent Engineering Consultant noted that the current schedule has “a moderate risk of delay” that would push completion beyond December 2016, but the MTA has “obtained high-level commitments from its contractors that support a December 2016 Revenue Service Date.” In other words, it’s all hands on deck from here on out.

So what are the big obstacles? The MTA and IEC acknowledge plenty. Currently, the IEC lists four key activities behind schedule. The first concerns permanent power at the 86th St. station which will delay the start of systems testing. The second involves construction of the entrances to the 72nd St. station, a problem obvious in its description. The third involves installation of communication and traction power equipment, and the fourth is track installation at 72nd St., another element problematic by its very existence. Try as they might, the MTA simply can’t run a subway without tracks.

The MTA currently has a proposed timeline for achieving each of these key activities, but the timeline is losing its flexibility (or contingency). Track installation, for instance, is 67 percent complete, and the contractor has vowed to finish on time. Permanent power energization for 86th St. is on target for a late April date, and the contractor at 72nd St. has promised to complete the station entrances so training can begin on September 1.

In addition to key activities already behind schedule, the IEC identified areas of risk that could lead to delays over the next year. These include design and scope changes, fire alarm system testing (which you may recall was one of the reasons for the delay of 7 line extension), installation of certain power and communications systems, and personnel availability. With three new stations scheduled to go online within 8-10 weeks of each other, the IEC is concerned that Transit will not make available enough staff to ensure training and testing can be completed to accommodate a revenue service date of December. As the MTA hasn’t activated this many new stations at once in a generation, the agency is on unsure ground here, but Capital Construction says it will work with Transit to ensure staff is made available for necessary training.

Other than noting these issues, the IEC’s solution involved speeding up work and spending faster. It’s not exactly a ground-breaking suggestion, but at this point, the MTA’s wiggle room is disappearing. Things are moving forward, but it’s going to be a sprint to get to next December. The next quarterly update on the Second Ave. Subway will be published in March. If these scheduling obstacles remain, wrapping by December will be questionable at best, and history, as we all know too well, isn’t on the MTA’s side. If I were a betting man, I’d probably take the “over” on December 2016. How about you?

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Henderson December 14, 2015 - 12:40 am

Well done, unions.

Peter L December 14, 2015 - 9:52 am

Right. It’s never ever the fault of management. Ever.

Spendmor Wastemor December 14, 2015 - 5:09 pm

In New York and several other places, they are two tails of the same coin.

Dave Sedgwick December 14, 2015 - 1:12 am

What kind of ‘training’ is needed? Driving trains is pretty much the same from line to line, no?

adirondacker12800 December 14, 2015 - 2:39 am

Not at all.

Bolwerk December 14, 2015 - 11:07 am

No, but even if that were so, new people are being brought on. New station management. New support staff.

No matter what, they need training.

Matthew L December 14, 2015 - 11:11 am

hundreds of people’s lives are in your hands but you put training in quotes? Are you fucking crazy?

Fool December 14, 2015 - 7:12 pm

Hundreds of people’s lives in your hands and you let a human operate the machine?

Ryan December 14, 2015 - 5:01 am

I’ll put whatever the cost of a monthly pass in July 2017 down for that being the first month that you can ride a Q train up 2 Av.

I’m still probably way too optimistic there.

Abba December 14, 2015 - 5:54 am

Very small chance it opens on time. in my opinion.

Larry Littlefield December 14, 2015 - 7:08 am

Unless there are penalties for finishing late, the contractors will probably demand extra money to finish on time. If it hasn’t already been paid, in which case they will demand more.

The contractors don’t have to worry that if they jerk the MTA around they won’t get future jobs. They have campaign contributions to take care of that.

May I point out that the heads of BOTH houses of the NY State legislature were just convicted of corruption, joining 31 others since 2000. And you don’t think that petty personal corruption they are convicted on is the real problem, do you?

At the same time crains dot the sky, the unions only allow so many members, and the MTA is limited to union workers politically. So where will the contractors choose to work if they are stretched? Private developers with whom their future business relationship is voluntary on both ends? Or the MTA?

mister December 14, 2015 - 1:22 pm

Nearly ever contract includes liquidated damages for not meeting the date of substantial completion. However, in my limited experience, there are usually enough delays caused by MTA themselves that any attempt to enforce them would be met with a, successful, lawsuit.

Also, MTA jobs sometimes do have non-union contractors work on them. All that MTA requires is that the contractor pay prevailing wage.

SEAN December 14, 2015 - 9:21 am

It’s more likely that the Knicks will win the NBA title before any MTA project raps on time, but we did have a triple crown winner this year – so who knows. Rare events do happen.

g December 14, 2015 - 10:22 am

When an improbable number of things have to go right for an on schedule completion guess what’s not happening.

They’ll probably be six months late and even more over budget but the public will give them a pass, again, because it’s not in service yet. The MTA doesn’t care about throwing away millions (or even billions) in capital project overruns but every SINGLE penny on the operational side must be guarded like the crown jewels…service and rationality be dammed.

JEG December 14, 2015 - 10:28 am

While not optimistic about the likelihood that the Second Avenue subway will be in service within twelve months, signs that the project is nearing an endgame of major construction elements is visible. The entrance on the east side of 68th Street is beginning to take form, and should be at grade fairly soon, while the ventilation towers at 68th and 72nd Street are at or near their full structural height. Down at 63rd Street and Third Avenue, it likewise appears that entrances are nearing a state of completion, and work inside that station has made great progress.

Of course as the reports make clear, and the experience with the 7 line extension shows, its not necessarily significant construction elements alone that delays the opening of new stations, but the testing of systems and training of employees.

aestrivex December 14, 2015 - 10:48 am

Yes, clearly a betting man would take the “over”, but honestly it is encouraging that this project could actually complete in March/April/May 2017. We would have probably been very pleased if the 7 line extension had been opened with 5 months delay, for instance (the irony of which can be contemplated another day).

Herb Lehman December 14, 2015 - 11:57 am

Hahahaha. December 2016. In my mind, it’ll be a win if we have train service to 96 St – 2 Av by the end of the decade.

My prediction is that the MTA will open the full 63 St/Lexington Av station in December 2016, extend weekend/late night Q train service to 63-Lex at that time, and brag that “the Second Avenue Subway opened for revenue service in December 2016.”

Benjamin Kabak December 14, 2015 - 12:37 pm

It’s going to be all or nothing based on track and switch configuration.

Nick Ober December 14, 2015 - 1:05 pm

Could you explain further? Can they only turn trains at 96th?

mister December 14, 2015 - 1:28 pm

If I remember the switch configuration correctly, there are switches at 72nd (which was supposed to be a 3 track station, but I digress). It’s not possible to terminate Q service at 63rd without a substantial amount of single tracking.

Herb Lehman December 14, 2015 - 3:30 pm

Thanks, I didn’t know that. It’s too bad, because even though that was intended as a snide remark, it would have been a useful extension of Q service during off-hours while waiting for the full SAS to come online.

mister December 14, 2015 - 6:12 pm

Well, if the rails and signals are complete, but the stations north of 63rd are not, they could relay the trains at a closed 72nd st and discharge passengers at 63rd/Lex.

Brooklynite December 14, 2015 - 6:30 pm

The station furthest behind schedule appears to be 86th, which probably precludes opening 96th and having trains skip 86th (can you run through a station without fire alarms?) 72nd has an entrance slightly behind schedule as I recall, but that can be halfassed to get it in service on New Years’ Eve and then worked on after. You know, how the recently redone platform at Ditmas is still missing some of its walls?

mister December 14, 2015 - 7:10 pm

Seeing as how many active stations don’t have fire alarm at all, and many others only have it for a select few non-public rooms, operating through a station without FA should not be a problem.

Benjamin Kabak December 14, 2015 - 7:14 pm

The MTA can no longer get permits needed to open a station to the public without appropriate fire safety systems in place and functional. The old stations are grandfathered in. This is a (one of many) source of cost increases and project delays.

mister December 14, 2015 - 10:24 pm

Absolutely. FA is one of many comm systems that need to be installed at a station that we didn’t have years ago, and the fact that it’s Life Safety means we have to have it fully tested and commissioned before the station opens. When you understand just how many other systems FA touches (escalators, elevators, mechanical ventilation, Fire Suppression, BMS-if it exists…) you start to see why it has potential for delays.

But in the context of the question above, there’s no reason why a train could not run through (bypass) a station that lacks FA, especially in light of the many stations without it.

Brooklynite December 15, 2015 - 4:39 pm

I suppose it could theoretically be possible? That would depend on the bureaucracy. Also, do train movements interfere with fire alarm testing? I don’t know.

Brooklynite December 14, 2015 - 6:27 pm

Here’s a question: how do the construction managers at MTACC still have jobs?

Benjamin Kabak December 14, 2015 - 10:57 pm

Let’s just say that you’re not the only one wondering that these days. I doubt we will see change, voluntary or otherwise, but this question is being asked.

Brooklynite December 15, 2015 - 4:41 pm

If I’m not mistaken that’s the job of the IG, but it doesn’t look like that’s helping.

It’s wishful thinking but maybe after Preet Bharara is done cleaning up Albany (if he ever IS done, there’s always something to clean up there) he could move on and clean house at MTA?

Nathanael December 22, 2015 - 9:33 pm

There’s maybe about 50 to 100 more pols in Albany who need to go to prison. I don’t think Preet will ever be done, unless the rats decide to flee to another state.


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