Home Capital Program 2020-2024 MTA officials cite fire code in defending $6 billion cost for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway

MTA officials cite fire code in defending $6 billion cost for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway

by Benjamin Kabak

When I was in Japan at the end of August, Donald Trump tweeted about the Second Ave. Subway. It wasn’t clear what inspired the president’s mid-morning statement on a seemingly stalled project; after all, it didn’t appear to make its way onto one of the numerous TV news shows Trump often live-tweets.

It was, needless to say, a very strange happening, and no one — not least of all Gov. Andrew Cuomo or the MTA — knew what to make of it. There is no full funding grant agreement in place between the MTA and the Federal Transit Administration yet, and Trump has since offered no further indication that he knows much of anything about the federal involvement with this subway construction project. Cuomo eventually spoke with U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, but even then, no one had much to say about the presidential statement.

With the release of the MTA Capital Plan last week, the Second Ave. Subway and the dollars associated with this long-awaited subway expansion project are back in the news. As part of the 2020-2024 Capital Plan, the MTA is proposing to fund and build Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway. This three-stop, 1.5-mile northern extension of the current Q train would see the train stopping at 106th St. and Second Ave., 116th St. and Second Ave., and 125th St. and Lexington Ave., connecting to Metro-North and the East Side IRT while bringing subway service to East Harlem. This project is expected to use parts of tunnels dug out in the 1970s and may cost over $6 billion.

That’s not a typo, and it’s not quite clear what the final cost will be. The full capital plan, released toward the end of the week as a PDF, indicates that the cost for the project could be as high as $6.9 billion, but in comments earlier in the week, Janno Lieber, the MTA’s Chief Development Officer and president of MTA Capital Construction, spoke about the varying figures. The project could come in for $5.7 billion or it could cost more. Here are Lieber’s initial comments on the price tag:

The financial plan for Second Ave. Subway Phase 2 is a 50-50 split with the federal government and the MTA. Because we had $1.24 billion in the existing plan and because we under the federal government rule are providing for the financing through our own financing mechanisms, so in the federal government’s view this is a $6.2 billion project. We view it as $5.7 billion. They’ve said, as we’ve gone through the process with them, we would like you to add some additional contingency. So in order to make the numbers work, we’re adding roughly $1.6 billion in this plan for our side of the 50-50 split with the federal government.

It’s worth noting again that the MTA does not have a full funding agreement in place with the feds. Lieber, who declined to comment when asked about Trump’s tweet, told reporters that the MTA’s working relationship with the feds has been positive. “They have,” he said, “basically validated our assumptions about the constructability of the project, our budget, our schedule. They asked us to add a little bit of contingency, but it’s been a positive interaction and now we’re ready to get a final approval.”

Once the feds sign off on the funding split, the MTA expects to begin work shortly thereafter. That was, after all, the point of funding engineering work in the 2015-2019 Capital Plan, but it’s still not clear when shovels will be in the ground. A few years ago, the agency had hoped to begin utility relocation work before the end of 2019, but that timeline seems aggressive. The MTA did not say if Phase 2 is still expected to be in revenue service by 2027.

But this issue of the cost looms large. Why is the Second Ave. Subway going to cost $2.5 billion per kilometer? Can the public believe the MTA is serious about cost containment when the price tag has increased to astronomical levels? And what do these dollars say about the agency’s ability to plan future transit expansion projects down the road?

When Dana Rubinstein of Politico New York asked Lieber a similar question, he started talking about fire codes. While there is some truth here, Lieber’s answer was an unsatisfactory one, but it’s a response you should read for yourself to understand the MTA’s siloed perspective on these cost issues. These are Lieber’s words:

“I think we have to have a longer conversation about the comparisons to other places. I’ll tell you this: One of the reasons we have expensive subways is that we comply with the fire code which requires you to get people out. Every body who rides trains, and we have 1000 people plus on a train, to get them out of the station at a certain pace. Other systems which run trains that have fewer people on them do not have some of the same costs associated with vertical circulation to get people out.

There are a lot of things that make New York different, but what we’re doing is already demonstrating that we can control costs by shortening project times, by delivering fewer change orders, quicker turnaround, paying contractors faster. We’re already demonstrating that we can and will build projects faster, better and cheaper, and I’m confident the Second Ave. Subway will prove that out.”

Does Lieber have a point? In a way, yes. Nearly ten years ago, while assessing plans for the Cairo Metro’s Line 4, a conglomerate of Japanese railway engineers assessed global fire code standards (PDF) and found that if NPFA 130, the U.S. standard, “is applied strictly, the structure of the tunnel and station tends to be bigger and the cost of the construction also tends to be higher.” NPFA 130 requires more frequent in-tunnel emergency exits than other international systems, but that doesn’t mean costs should orders of magnitude higher in New York.

There are, needless to say, plenty of other cities in the world with fire codes, as the JICA report details, and plenty that are building subways at costs far lower than ours. Paris, for instance, is building a four-mile, six-station extension of Line 11 of the Metro at a cost of approximately $1.4 billion. At Paris costs, the entire Second Ave. Subway could be built for not much more than the Phase 2 price tag, and at U.S. costs, this Line 11 extension would cost between $13-$16 billion. These cost discrepancies are a crisis that will soon preclude New York City from any meaningful future subway expansion efforts, and it’s not clear, based on Lieber’s comments, that the MTA can even begin to approach solving this crisis.

What happens next seems clear. At some point, the FTA is likely to approve a full-funding grant agreement for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway at an estimated cost of $6.2 billion, and the MTA will move forward with this project. No one in Washington or New York City will stop to ask if we’re getting enough subway for $6.2 billion, even as Paris could build 12 miles of subway and 18 stations for the same amount. We’re fall back on New York exceptionalism — the fire code this time; the density next time — as excuses and watch at much-needed or much-ballyhooed plans such as the Utica Ave. Subway, a cross-Bronx line or the Triboro RX die at the alter of obscene costs.

Lieber meanwhile told reporters that Phase 2, even with the price tag, isn’t the end of the Second Ave. Subway. When asked if Phases 3 and 4 are in the cards, he said, “They are very much part of the vision of a completed Second Ave. Subway, but boy are we focused like all get-on on Phase 2 which really will make a difference to East Harlem and Central Harlem and makes good on a commitment that’s been out there for 75 years.”

Seventy-five years and billions of dollars that just don’t go all that far in New York City. Hopefully, it won’t take 75 years to figure our way out of this cost crisis.

You may also like


Larry Penner September 23, 2019 - 8:31 am

The year started with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority financial commitment for construction of Second Avenue Subway Phase 2 of $1,735 billion. This would support preliminary environmental, design, engineering and utility relocation work north from 96th Street on to 125th Street. They needed $4.265 billion in total funding for actual construction of Phase 2. The MTA would have to find $2.265 billion in local dollars in the next MTA Five Year 2020 – 2024 Capital Program. This would bring the total local funding commitment up to $4 billion. This is necessary for the MTA to count on the FTA New Starts program providing $2 billion in additional federal funding for a total of $6 billion. These dollars are required to fully fund Second Avenue Subway Phase 2. Add $15 billion more down the road under future MTA Five Year Capital Plans for Phases 3 & 4 to complete the full length of Second Avenue Subway south to Hanover Square.

In April, the MTA claimed they could save between $500 million to a $1 billion in costs for this project. This would have reduced the overall tab to $5 billion. Promised cost savings were based upon reduction in excavation for the 125th Street Station and building the 116th Street Station in space no longer needed for other project work.

Under the proposed $51 billion 2020 – 2024 Five Year Capital Plan, the overall cost has now increased by $1 billion. This raised the proposed project price tag to $7 billion. The previous federal share of $2 billion or 33% has now been assumed to be 50% or $3.5 billion. No one has come forward to explain these changes. There is no guarantee (based upon future advancement of design and engineering, construction contractors responses to the procurement process for contract(s) award followed by change orders during construction due to unforeseen site conditions or last minute changes in scope) that the final cost could end up several hundred million to a billion or two more.

A legal federal commitment to fund Second Ave Subway Phase 2 still remains an open question. All the Federal Transit Administration has provided to the MTA in 2018 was the FONSI (Finding of No Significant Impact) based upon completion of the NEPA (National Environmental Protection Act) review process. The project still faces myriad hurdles.

The MTA expects to receive a Full Funding Grant Agreement from FTA based upon the most recent FTA New Starts Report in 2020. Second Avenue Subway; Phase 2 would be open for revenue service between 2027 and 2029. Based on past history, that is optimistic. Ask the MTA how many years this process required before obtaining FFGA’s from FTA for both LIRR East Side Access to Grand Central Terminal or Second Avenue Subway Phase One. Remember that the $29 billion Gateway Tunnel project is in direct competition for the same funding source. The reduced scope version for $12 billion (Portal Bridge, two new tunnels and rehabilitation of the old tunnels) would require $6 billion in federal funding.

The MTA hoped to begin construction this year. Don’t count on it. There are 98 other Senators and 434 Congress members supporting their own New Starts projects. Why would the federal government approve any FFGA without a guarantee from the MTA that the matching local share of $4 billion, including $2.265 billion balance is secure and in place. The only proof is inclusion of this project within the next 2020 – 2024 Five Year Capital Program Plan approved by the Albany Capital Program Review Board. Previous MTA Five Year Capital Plans have been approved up to one year late. Several billion dollars worth of projects were usually cut to match the final anticipated available funding. Based on past history, the next MTA Five Year Capital Plan may not be approved until many months later. Actual construction contracts could end up being awarded in 2022. If Phase One took 10 years to complete from the original 2007 contract award to January 2017, Phase Two might not be completed until 2030 or later.
Second Avenue Subway Phase 2 will end up competing against many other worthy projects in the Metro New York area sponsored by either Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey or NYC Department of Transportation for the same federal funding.

(Larry Penner is a transportation historian, advocate and writer who previously worked in 31 years for the US Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office. This included the review, approval and oversight for billions of dollars in grants to the MTA which funded LIRR, Metro North and NYC Transit capital projects and programs) .

BrightonChris September 24, 2019 - 3:13 pm

Too Long!

start your own blog if you are going to wtite that much not hijack this one.

Peggy Terry September 25, 2019 - 4:23 pm

All those words… and nothing was said. And this same avalanche of words will be found in every Queens newspaper this week.

Subutay Musluoglu September 26, 2019 - 11:20 am

Wholeheartedly agree – the same letter to the editor has been recycled for the last few years. And in Crain’s, and in Streetblog. The only thing that changes is the sequencing of the paragraphs. It has no value whatsoever.

Larry Littlefield September 23, 2019 - 9:17 am

“MTA officials cite fire code in defending $6 billion cost for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway.”

I’m not letting them get way with that. I recall the original plan.

This is the rest of Phase I.

Walt Gekko September 23, 2019 - 11:10 am

And there lies ONE of MANY issues:

If you relax the fire code to cut costs, what happens if years later some massive emergency happens and because some fire exits were not built in order to reduce costs, people die? Lawsuits could easily eat up any money saved.

This is the part many don’t consider in why the costs are so prohibitive.

Jedman67 September 23, 2019 - 1:54 pm

Walter, it’s not perfectly reasonable to blame NYC fire codes for costs roughly quadruple the European average per passenger mile.
Compare London, Paris, Hong Kong and Japan to New York City.

Josh Karpoff September 23, 2019 - 8:49 pm

But are other countries as litigious as our society is? In our society, the only way to settle most issues is to go to court in long drawn out processes.
You’ve got your NIMBY neighbors, who don’t want a subway stop for whatever crazy reason, typically because it will bring “the wrong kind of people to the neighborhood”.
You have all of the local businesses who will be disrupted or go under because of the construction throwing in their hats with the crazy NIMBYs.
Then you get the local community grassroots advocacy groups who want expanded mass transit, but are afraid that real estate speculators will swoop in and gentrify anything that isn’t already a luxury condo.
Then you get the safety and disability advocates and whatever other past lawsuits the agency lost and got taken to town as part of the institutional memory of the organization.
So everyone starts building the fear of lawsuits into everything.
Engineers and architects don’t want to be sued, so they design to the letter of the building codes and standards. It doesn’t matter if that’s not the practical way or logical way to do something, the code says do this, so they do this.
The State and MTA has been through the wringer enough with low-bid contractors shaking them down over small details that turn into big expenses, which after lengthy lawsuits, turn into big delays and cost overruns. So they plug those loopholes in the specs for next time.
But that makes the drawings and specs more complicated to design, more complicated to bid and more complicated to actually build.
So now the low bid contractors have to higher away former State and MTA officials to be on their side to help them find loopholes to exploit for change orders, which is where their actual profit margins are found.
There are a limited number of large contracting firms in NYC with the experience and the access to capital to even take on these mega projects. Digging through that super difficult Manhattan Schist needs big expensive, specialized equipment, only ever used every other country for the past 20 years! One needs to look at who’s behind their financing, to see the same mega banks that are lending the MTA construction bonds. The more that the contractors drive up costs through delays, change orders and cost overruns, the more the MTA needs to borrow. The banks make huge profits coming AND going!
The building trades, they got connections, ya know? Connections with the politicians that oversee the State, MTA and the City. Some supposedly still have connections to other organized family types too. If you don’t see things their way, your deliveries, they don’t happen. Your trucks, just break down for no reason. It’s crazy how that happens. So the building trades get what they want, without question.
The politicians in office now are rarely the ones in office when it’s done. So the ones in office now can underestimate the costs involved to get shovels in the ground for the big photo op and then move on to bigger and better things, while actually kicking the can down the road, while when the tab comes due, the current crop of politicians can scream for change and reforms, but blame their predecessor (preferably in the other party) and then get to go to the ribbon cutting after “knocking some heads” to get it done finally!
Oh but wait, those last delays, those were commissioning. See its one thing to dig a hole, build a bunch of steel reinforced concrete and install some tracks and power wiring. Thats the easy part. The hard part is all of the incredibly overly complicated, custom, one-off, digital networking, building controls, SCADA, Fire Alarms, Track Signals and CCTV Security Systems. Computers suck, networks are horrible and low voltage control systems are the worst. This combines all of that. The good technicians and engineers for this stuff are not common and if there are several large projects around the globe that are trying to commission at the same time, these people can get sucked away. Even in NYC, the MTA has a tendency to try to commission multiple projects of its own at the same time, so it’s in-house skilled techs are stretched too thin and can’t meet the time frame, a problem frequently cited by the independent engineer audits at Board committee meetings.
There’s no one magic fix.
It is a systemic problem that is rooted not just in the MTA, but in the way our all of our public agencies do projects. Look at the DoD and building the F35 Joint Strike Fighter or the Ford-class super carrier. Many of the same root causes of government boondoggle spending can be found in those programs. Not to say that the Private sector is any better, I think that they just hide it better because they are more opaque in their internal dealings than a government agency is with its spending. Lord knows how much Microsoft wasted on the Zune or Windows Mobile.
Should we strive to be better?
Should we lay all of the blame at the feet of one agency that was dealt a raw deal from day 1, inheirting the messes of how many bankrupt private companies and mismanaged public agencies, while being frequently handicapped by Albany as part of a dumb political football game between Upstate and downstate or various egotistical douchenozzle politicians. Does it trip over itself to cause itself endless problems? Absolutely. But not even 15% of its problems could be fixed by reforming the MTA. You’d have to “fundamentally transform” Albany, City Hall and American society writ large to begin to tackle the root causes of much of the MTA’s dysfunction.

BrightonChris September 24, 2019 - 3:15 pm

far too long and dense a read

this is longer even than Ben’s article!

Joe M September 24, 2019 - 12:52 am

Its not just overseas construction that cost less, look at recent Washington Metro costs as well those for LA Metro. Same safety standards but their costs are far less. The only thing I can figure is that they are basing costs on reverting to the same failed low bid construction methodology that resulted in Phase 1 or ESA and ridiculously long schedules. There may have been political pushback from contractors as a result of the recent successes of lower cost design build projects and thereby taking money out of their pockets. Regardless, as Larry Penner suggests, at the current costs and time line I don’t see this project happening. I can almost sense that this might just be a set for the Governor to come in and save the day by deriding the current project plan as being a product of the old wasteful MTA and announcing a fast track design build contract. This could very well be the case since the current design effort started before the intense scrutiny into MTA finances and construction practices started.

David Brown September 24, 2019 - 12:16 pm

Economics: The textbook definition is “The study of SCARCE resources and how best to allocate them.” People from our “Leaders” on down, seem to have forgotten that. Free College, Student Loan Forgiveness, Green New Deal, Single Payer Health Care, increased defense spending and open borders all of this with no costs except to Wall Street. Taking this to the Second Ave Subway, in my humble opinion, Phases 3 & 4 are just another promise that cannot be kept without waiting until the year 2,100 (if then). Why? The price for Phase 2 (which was supposed to be the easiest because of the pre-built tunnels) is insane, and there are too many other variables involved with the project, it is not funny. Recessions and other economic factors, actual need (based on population), climate change, MTA and similar agency behavior (See East Side Access as Exhibit:A The National Debt and politics to name a few. Unless I am frozen in time, I doubt I will ever see Phases 2 & 3 start construction (let alone get completed)

SEAN September 24, 2019 - 4:40 pm

And what do open borders have to do with the second Avenue subway exactly?

David J Brown September 24, 2019 - 6:01 pm

More people that need to be taken care of. That costs money.

SEAN September 24, 2019 - 8:26 pm

You want money for all of our needs… first off close most of our overseas bases & cut the defense budget by 90%. I’m dead serious, there’s more grift in the defense industry than the MTA could ever witness. That money could be repatriated into social services, healthcare & research along with housing & expanded transit services across the country. But alas, those on top love war as it is profitable.

AlexB September 25, 2019 - 1:51 am

The costs are crazy but the MTA really needs to start on Phase 3 at the same time as Phase 2, building at least the 55th and 42nd St stations (w/ transfers to E/M and 7/Grand Central). The Q only runs about every 8 minutes during rush hour and during AM peak not everyone can get on at 72nd St. Extending the subway to 42nd would allow them to start running the T train 125th-42nd, providing some relief to the Q, and allowing more service from Queens Blvd. The whole service pattern is messed up right now. I use 86th every day and sometimes they send W or N trains up 2nd Ave to help. Routes should be clear, consistent and reliable and they definitely are not along the Broadway line and B division generally.

Void September 25, 2019 - 10:06 am

How about instead of doing phase 3 and 4 aka where all the trains have gone before, we go straight across 125th st and finally have crosstown service above central park? That would be a lot more useful than ANOTHER line through downtown.

AMH September 25, 2019 - 12:59 pm

East Midtown desperately needs a subway, but I agree that an uptown crosstown line would be much more useful than Phase 4. There is a lot of demand for travel between upper Manhattan and the UES. Phase 3 can be connected to Brooklyn through one of our many underused lines (Rutgers, Nassau, etc).

Adirondacker12800 September 25, 2019 - 1:42 pm

…Montague? It can use the underutilized Nassau street lines and connect cheaply to the underutilized Culver and Fulton lines. The Broadway locals in Manhattan would have to terminate at City Hall or Whitehall but that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

AlexB September 25, 2019 - 8:57 pm

I agree that 125th is more useful than phase 3 but then you’re still suck with overcrowded trains on second avenue line unless you do some major deinterlining. It would work if the MTA sent:
30 tph (Q) from Broadway express to 2nd Ave/125th,
30 tph (E) from 8th Ave local along 53rd & Queens Blvd local
30 tph (N/R) from Broadway local to Astoria,
30 tph (F) from 6th Ave local to Queens Blvd express, and
30 tph (A/C) along 8th Ave express
Better service but politically tough

Alon Levy September 25, 2019 - 5:13 pm


smartone September 25, 2019 - 3:47 pm

The cost will only be addressed if NYC takes subways back from MTA . The MTA and Albany is the reason cost are so high.
If NYC had control of subway as Corey Johnson has outlined – You could have permeant team who sold focus is subway expansion . By removing bureaucracy layers and having a dedicated team to subway expansion you could get cost down significantly .

In addition this new NYC control subway group could look at alternative methods to fund subway expansion (like Bloomberg did for 7th avenue subway expansion ) which would also lower cost

Alon Levy September 26, 2019 - 10:16 am

The 7 extension was actually really expensive, if anything more expensive than SAS on a per-station basis.

smartone September 26, 2019 - 1:32 pm

I was not referring to the construction but rather the financing –
the Construction has the same problems as other MTA construction
but 7 extension was financed 100% by city thru bonds that were backed by increase of real estate value of extension .
I would think that projects like Utica Avenue line Red Hook Extension and the Triboro RX could be funded this way

The Hunkster September 28, 2019 - 9:16 am

So much governmental red tape on the local, state and federal levels to get these public transit projects on time and on budget. That’s the norm all across this nation in the past several decades or so, or since 1964 of course with the passage of the urban mass transportation act. Then again, I’ll not be surprised if the Trump administration will not even give #CuomosMTA a cent for the SAS because of his hatred towards our own state he used to live.

Michael549 September 28, 2019 - 8:43 pm

I wonder how much with the Second Avenue Subway as planned is so far underground that the fire code issues becomes much more of an problem – as compared to subway lines that would be built closer to the surface or on the surface?

smotri October 6, 2019 - 11:24 am

At the rate the expenses of building this so-called Second Avenue Subway are going, the subway fare will have to rise to astronomical heights in order to pay for it. Plus, it will be yet another century late. This is not the stuff of a supposed world class city, but more like a city in a very corrupt third world country.


Leave a Comment