After over 85 years of planning, proposing, building, halting and starting over again, the Second Ave. Subway will make its long-awaited public debut on January 1, 2017, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Monday. As New York’s chief executive has made opening the line by the December 2016 deadline the MTA imposed upon itself in 2009 a major goal, he will lead a ceremonial ride on New Year’s Eve with revenue service starting at noon on New Year’s Day. Yet, as this oft-cursed project can’t simply open without a hitch, the Second Ave. Subway — a northern four-stop extension of the Q — will run only from 6 a.m. – 10 p.m. until 24-7 service begins on Monday, January 9.
“New Yorkers have waited nearly a century to see the promise of the Second Avenue Subway realized, and after unrelenting dedication from thousands of hardworking men and women, the wait is over and the subway will open on December 31,” the governor said in a statement. “The on-time completion of this major, transformative project reaffirms confidence in government competence, increasing capacity on the nation’s busiest subway system, and delivering a new, vital transportation artery to millions of New Yorkers.”
Of course, “on-time completion” is relative. The subway was originally supposed to open in the mid-1930s, and the current project was originally projected to open in late 2012. Phase 1 is also only just a part of an aspirational subway line. Using older tunnels, the Q train will head north from its current terminus at 57th St./7th Ave. with a stop at 63rd St./Lexington (and a transfer to the F) before heading up Second Ave. with stops at 72nd St., 86th St. and 96th St. This isn’t quite yet the T train as that new line won’t arrive until Phase 3, a far-away plan to dig south of 63rd St. underneath 2nd Ave.
Yet, for everything this new extension isn’t, it deserves to be celebrated. It’s (hopefully) the start of an effort to right a mobility wrong that has plagued the East Side since the elevated closed in the 1940s and 1950s and brings much-needed relief to the Lexington Ave. line. MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said, “The Second Avenue Subway is the most significant addition to our system in 50 years and will serve more riders on opening day than Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Boston transit systems combined,” MTA Chairman Tom Prendergast said.
I’m curious to see how this new line works out. It’s bound to be a success, and I see no reason to doubt the MTA’s ridership projections. Yet, a level of mystery surrounds the project. Many New Yorkers who are only casual observers of subway news will be surprised to hear that the T isn’t debuting and that the new extension is only three stops along the Upper East Side. Others will be dismayed to find six- or eight-minute peak-hour headways, by far the longest of any Manhattan trunk line, and stations far deeper underground than New Yorkers are accustomed to. Plus, it is likely to be another decade before Phase 2 — another three stops further north through East Harlem — sees the light of day as construction work isn’t expected to begin on this part until late 2019.
Already, the stations are earning praise for their art installation, and the Governor and his team have been pushing that element of the project as a way to draw attention to something new. After all, even though only only a fraction of the MTA’s construction budgets goes to Arts and Design, a fraction of $4.5 billion is still $4.5 million, a substantial sum for the blank canvas of three new stations and a fourth undergoing complete renovations. Photo recreations, massive mosaics and images of the old 2nd and 3rd Ave. elevated lines will dominate the lengthy mezzanine spaces at these new stations, and an early preview of the art is available here.
So after years and decades and stops and starts and New Yorkers who still won’t believe it until they ride the subway, the Second Ave. Subway will open in 11 days with the public invited for rides in 12. And after ten years of running this site, I won’t be in the city for the opening. I’m spending New Year’s Eve in Paris, and it seems only fitting somehow that the subway will open when I’m out of town. There’s always, if the stars align, Phase Two.