The Second Ave. Subway will open on December 31 with a ceremonial ride, Gov. Andrew Cuomo told NBC 4’s Andrew Siff on Sunday. The three and a half new stations that bring the Q north to 96th St. and 2nd Ave. will open to the public the following day. As the MTA gears up for this monumental opening, focus is shifting to Phase 2 of the project, a northern swing to 125th St. and Lexington. Even though work won’t begin until 2019, city officials want to secure federal funding, and today’s post is a guest submission from Stephen Smith, the voice behind the @MarketUrbanism twitter account on just that topic. The words and sentiments are his, but the message is one I endorse.
Last week, New York politicians held a press conference making a last ditch effort to beseech the Obama administration to fund the second phase of the Second Avenue subway – taking the line from its soon-to-be terminus at 96th Street up to 125th, to meet up with the Lexington Avenue line – before transit-hostile Republicans assume power over all three levers of the federal government in January.
Unfortunately for New York, the biggest enemies of transit won’t be in Washington, but right here in New York. During the press conference, Vincent Barone at amNewYork reported that Rep. Carolyn Maloney put a price tag of $6 billion on the project – an astounding sum of money, so large that the chances of the second phase being built any time seem very remote. The latest estimate directly from the MTA was $5.5 to $6 billion – whether Rep. Maloney misspoke or accidentally broke some news, the numbers are unacceptable and unsustainable, and the MTA and its enablers are doing more to harm the cause of transit in New York than any Tea Partier could possibly dream of.
Some may have hoped that the MTA would learn a lesson from the first phase’s record-breaking costs, but the only thing the agency appears to have learned is that state and federal officials will not stand up to their waste or ever-rising costs.
At just 1.6 miles, with just three new stations, the second phase of the Second Avenue subway would be Planet Earth’s most expensive subway line on a per-mile basis – by far. Clocking in at $3.75 billion a mile, it would blow the first phase’s $2.2 billion per mile cost out of the water. The MTA’s projected construction costs in East Harlem would be literally 10 times those of Paris’s Line 14, and more than twice as expensive as London’s Crossrail (the costliest on earth, outside of New York). These much cheaper lines in Paris, London and elsewhere are not easy suburban extensions in third-world countries with low labor costs – they are lines that strike through the cores of New York City’s first-world peer megacities, with ancient and complex underground tunneling environments and strong worker protections and good pay.
Compared to the first phase of the Second Avenue subway, the East Harlem phase’s utility per dollar has dropped dramatically. The first phase will host 202,000 weekday riders, the MTA predicts, while the second phase will host half that. While the first phase cost around $22,000 per weekday rider, the second phase is estimated to cost more than $59,000. The higher cost per rider combined with an anti-transit Republican government in Washington makes the chances that the project will be funded any time soon slim, to say nothing of future phases downtown, or outer borough projects like Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, Northern Boulevard in Queens or Third Avenue in the Bronx.
Faced with such long odds, it’s time for New Yorkers who care about transit to stand up and say enough is enough. Supporting transit in theory is one thing, but blind obedience to an agency whose primary goal is keeping labor, contractors and warring management fiefdoms happy is not helpful to the cause of better transit.
Bringing costs back down to earth for New York’s subway projects wouldn’t be about saving money, but about building more transit. For a bit more than the $6 billion the MTA wants to spend on a two-mile, three-stop extension of the Second Avenue line to 125th Street, London built a full 10 new stations on the Jubilee Line in the late 1990s. For €3.1 billion, Amsterdam is driving its six-mile North-South metro line through the city’s core, beneath its 17th century canals, to connect its three main train stations – and that was after a 40 percent cost overrun.
If New York City could build subways at the same cost as its European counterparts, the $10 billion in spent and planned money for the first two phases of the Second Avenue subway could have paid for the entire line, from the Financial District up to 125th Street and Lexington Avenue. At a cost of around $1 billion per mile – still very high by continental European standards – the MTA would even have enough cash left over to head west and dig a crosstown subway to meet the 2/3, A/B/C/D and 1 trains, giving every line in the Bronx a two-seat ride to Manhattan’s dense far east side, and begin work on another line entirely in the outer boroughs. Convincing the state and federal government – and even the city – to contribute money to subway building would be far easier if the return were full new lines serving the entire region, rather than short stubs serving just a neighborhood or two.
When Trump was elected, a former Republican congressional staffer tweeted some advice for influencing public policy: call your elected representatives at their district offices. Don’t tweet at them, don’t send them email, don’t send them letters – call them. Tell them that you’re fed up with the MTA’s excuses on its costs, tell them that you love transit too much to let prices spiral into impossibility. Tell them that it’s time for capital construction chief Michael Horodniceanu to move on and for the MTA to find fresh blood. Tell them that it’s time to start standing up to the iron triangle of contractors, unions and management, in cahoots to prevent New York from progressing into the late 20th century, nevermind the twenty-first. Tell them that it’s well past time to address the issue, and they can’t take your vote for granted if they don’t.
To that end, see below for the district offices of New York’s two U.S. Senators, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and the state politicians who are most affected by the MTA’s inability to control costs and build the transit the city needs. Most people don’t have time to get deeply involved in politics, but everybody has time to make a 60-second phone call. Call them and tell them how you feel – it may be the most effective thing you ever do in politics.
To find your U.S. Representative, enter your zip code here, and then search for their district office phone number and call it. Do the same for your state assembly member here, and your state senator here. (These two may be the most important, since they have the most direct influence over the MTA.) I won’t list them all since there are a lot, but the district office numbers are very easy to find – take five seconds to Google them, and look for the number (it’s usually at the bottom of their main web page). If you live in New Jersey, do the same – the Gateway project suffers from the same sky-high costs and questionable design as the MTA’s projects, and your state and federal officials deserve to hear for you about it too.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo: (518) 474-8390
Sen. Chuck Schumer: (212) 486-4430
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand: (212) 688-6262
U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (East Side, Brooklyn north of Grand St., Long Island City and Astoria): (212) 860-0606
N.Y.S. Sen. Liz Krueger (Upper East Side, Midtown East, Murray Hill and Flatiron): (212) 490-9535
N.Y.S. Sen.-Elect Adriano Espaillat (Washington Heights, Inwood and the Far West Side): (212) 544-0173
Asm. Robert Rodriguez (East Harlem): (212) 828-3953
While making a few phone calls is the best way to tell them you care about this issue, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Do what you can – call one or two, or email them instead. And after you do, call, tweet and email your friends and tell them to the same. Elected officials work for you – the voter, straphanger and taxpayer – and serve at your pleasure. Don’t let them forget it.