Expensive Classes from the Second Avenue Subway | by Eric Goldwyn

Astrid Riecken For The Washington Submit by way of Getty Pictures)A crowd getting into the 96 St station of the Q line extension of the Second Avenue Subway on opening day of part one, New York Metropolis, January 1, 2017

I celebrated New Yr’s Day of 2017 by driving the Q practice from 63rd Road and Third Avenue to 96th Road and Second Avenue. I traveled with 1000’s of different New Yorkers desperate to make their maiden journey on the brand new Second Avenue subway—a venture virtually a century within the making. At every new station—72nd Road, 86th Road, and 96th Road—I exited the practice and gleefully inspected every escalator, elevator, mezzanine, and mosaic. Later that yr, The New York Occasions reported that the ultimate value of the venture had surpassed greater than $2 billion per mile, making it the most costly mile of subway on earth.

As costly as this almost two-mile venture was, as early as 2016 the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) introduced that part two, of a proposed 4 phases, would value nearer to $4 billion per mile. At this charge, it’s too expensive to construct at greater than a mile or two at a time, not to mention full the remaining three phases of the 8.5-mile Second Avenue subway, which is deliberate to run from a hundred and twenty fifth Road and Lexington Avenue in East Harlem to Hanover Sq. within the Monetary District.

In our analysis on transit-infrastructure building prices at NYU’s Marron Institute of City Administration, my colleagues Alon Levy, Elif Ensari Sucuoğlu, and I’ve collected information on greater than 5 hundred city rail initiatives in fifty nations and located that New York’s are constantly the most costly on this planet. Outdoors of New York, new subways and extensions sometimes value between $250-$450 million per mile. Whereas each venture is exclusive, it’s not instantly clear why digging a subway on the Higher East Aspect is twenty occasions dearer than in Seoul or ten occasions dearer than in Paris.

The impact of those runaway prices is dire: first, they inhibit the growth and improvement of high-capacity rapid-transit techniques at a second when considerations about local weather and unequal entry to inexpensive housing, jobs, training, and providers are paramount. The New York Metropolis subway, which opened in 1904 however has hardly expanded since 1940, helped to distribute the unimaginable inhabitants density of the Decrease East Aspect extra evenly throughout town by permitting New Yorkers to maneuver out of tenements downtown and into new housing in neighborhoods like Jackson Heights and Washington Heights, whereas supporting intense business focus in Midtown and Decrease Manhattan.

Second, cash funneled into capital growth—i.e., constructing new subway strains and increasing present ones, as was the case throughout part one of many Second Avenue subway—is commonly diverted from sustaining and upgrading the present community, which results in mechanical failures and unreliable service. If New Yorkers lose religion within the subway’s skill to get them the place they should go, the logic of New York breaks down and it turns into unimaginable to fill workplace towers in Midtown with out constructing acres of recent parking tons.

On prime of the associated fee considerations, the Covid-19 pandemic has challenged underlying assumptions that transit will proceed to function at its present capability into the longer term. As hospitalizations peaked in New York, every day ridership on the subway declined by greater than 90 % and even now’s down 70 % from final yr. With many fewer MetroCard swipes on the turnstiles, the federal authorities supplied almost $4 billion in working help in March to make up for the lack of income. Even with this huge working grant in hand, the MTA estimates that it wants a further $4 billion to proceed working service via 2020. Although there isn’t any imminent plan for an additional spherical of bailouts from D.C., transit companies throughout the nation have banded collectively to foyer for a further $32 billion in support resulting from Covid-19.

If all goes in response to plan and New Yorkers proceed to return out of isolation as summer time turns to fall, will they return to buses and subways? This open query hinges on two points: first, will there be jobs and colleges to return to within the close to future? With the unemployment charge nonetheless at historic highs, many non-essential employees persevering with to make money working from home, and metropolis colleges providing distant studying choices, it’s probably that hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers won’t must return to mass transit every day within the coming months. Second, does the subway assist unfold the coronavirus?

Latest research out of Paris, Austria, and Tokyo have been unable to hint virus clusters again to crowded public transit. Moreover, Asian cities like Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai, Taipei, and Hong Kong have skilled ridership rebounds as new circumstances of coronavirus have diminished, which means that transit might be managed safely throughout this pandemic. Public well being officers are inspired by the information and argue that with brief journeys, good air flow, lack of socializing, and obligatory masks utilization transmission charges might be stored low.


As bleak as the way forward for transit seems, the promise of a Second Avenue subway stays everlasting. In Final Subway: The Lengthy Await the Subsequent Prepare in New York Metropolis, printed earlier this yr, simply because the pandemic hit New York, political scientist and former supervisor of planning and coverage on the MTA Philip Plotch examines the almost ninety-year historical past of proposals to construct a Second Avenue subway. Within the e book’s closing pages, Plotch describes the Second Avenue subway as “too well-liked to be canceled and too costly to construct.” The e book reveals that traditionally, the promise of the Second Avenue subway has been used to achieve New Yorkers’ help to boost fares, approve bond acts, or settle for inconveniences—and explains why we solely have one extraordinarily costly and small portion of the road to indicate for it.  

One of many largest classes of Final Subway is that crises, just like the one we’re at the moment experiencing, crystalize focus across the system’s most pressing priorities. In 1929, the identical yr because the inventory market crash that precipitated the Nice Despair, the Second Avenue subway was billed as a significant plank in a one-hundred-mile growth plan, however it will definitely misplaced out to building on the Sixth and Eighth Avenue strains. Within the Forties and Fifties, elected officers dangled the Second Avenue subway in entrance of New Yorkers because the shiny new practice that justified elevating fares for the primary time within the system’s historical past. After the fare improve was accepted, these new funds had been in reality used to handle a long time’ price of deferred upkeep, comparable to changing dilapidated practice automobiles, rehabilitating stations, and repairing the ability and sign techniques.

Within the late Nineteen Sixties and the Nineteen Seventies, the dream of a Second Avenue subway reemerged because the centerpiece of an finally disastrous growth plan designed to achieve approval for a $2.5 billion transportation bond and propel Governor Nelson Rockefeller to the White Home. To entice voters throughout the state to help the bond on the polls, Plotch writes, Rockefeller promised one thing for everybody: “higher subways within the metropolis, commuter rail enhancements within the suburbs, new rural highways, a bridge throughout the Lengthy Island Sound between Westchester County and Lengthy Island, and loads of building jobs for unions.”

However even after voters accepted the bond act, it wasn’t sufficient to ship all the Governor’s guarantees. Building prices for the Second Avenue subway ended up being seven occasions higher than anticipated. The governor turned to the voters once more to approve much more debt to construct all the transportation initiatives he had promised. However voters refused to help further multibillion-dollar transportation bonds in 1971 and 1973. Somewhat than abandoning capital growth altogether, MTA management “began siphoning cash away from rehabilitating the present system,” writes Plotch. “The Transit Authority spent greater than three-quarters of its capital funds shopping for new automobiles and increasing the system, whereas annual expenditures to improve its present infrastructure decreased by almost 40 %.”

Spencer Platt/Getty PicturesMTA employees taking a look at proposed designs for a accomplished Second Avenue Subway line, New York Metropolis, April 12, 2007

With much less cash accessible for routine upkeep, the MTA needed to reduce corners to proceed working service and pursing capital growth. Plotch explains that traditionally, subway automobiles had been inspected earlier than leaving a storage yard in order that minor points may very well be addressed earlier than placing it into service. “Within the late Nineteen Seventies, employees waited till subway automobiles broke down earlier than fixing them. Because of this, trains broke down 4 occasions extra typically in 1980 than in 1968,” writes Plotch.

With out further assets to finish the Second Avenue subway, not solely had been plans shelved, but in addition the discontinuous sections of tunnel already constructed alongside the Second Avenue hall needed to be sealed off as a result of their lack of connection to an present line or a practice yard made them unusable. Moreover, service grew to become extra unreliable, which brought about a vicious cycle of declining ridership, higher working losses, and extra mechanical failures.

Regardless of these setbacks within the Nineteen Seventies, the Nineteen Eighties gave approach to new management on the MTA that used the disaster as a possibility to give attention to the basics of working and sustaining the subway system. Because the MTA centered on getting the system to a state of excellent restore, individuals and jobs flocked to New York. Since 1980, New York has gained greater than 1.2 million jobs and almost 1.4 million residents. This, in flip, led to record-breaking subway ridership within the 2010s.

As subway ridership grew and the MTA’s fiscal outlook improved, plans for the Second Avenue subway reemerged. In 2001 the MTA introduced an eye-popping $16.8 billion value estimate for the whole lot of the 8.5-mile Second Avenue subway. As a consequence of those excessive prices and with little direct monetary help from the state and metropolis, the MTA pursued a funding technique that mixed a voter-approved transportation bond and federal cash. To be able to guarantee federal help, the venture was strategically divided into 4 phases at an estimated value of $4.5 billion every, making the preliminary request from the MTA much less onerous than what it will have been for the total venture. In 2007 the federal authorities awarded the MTA $1.3 billion for part one however didn’t decide to funding further phases of the venture.

The extremely excessive prices of part one of many Second Avenue subway spotlight three issues that plague transit-infrastructure prices throughout the nation. First, though phasing initiatives reduces voters’ and the federal authorities’s preliminary monetary dedication, this incremental strategy creates downstream prices. Within the case of the Second Avenue subway, costly work that would have been completed as soon as for your entire venture, comparable to launching the tunnel boring machine or finishing up environmental research, should now be replicated for every part of building. Second, the procurement course of has not galvanized sturdy competitors to deliver down prices. Solely two firms bid on the contract to dig the tunnel for part one of many Second Avenue subway, making the ultimate value of digging 20 % greater than the preliminary estimate. Third, the MTA’s efforts to adjust to laws, mollify people who find themselves impacted by the venture, and appease different governmental companies results in decision-making that usually accepts further prices unrelated to the venture, comparable to sewer line substitute, noise mitigation, alignment modifications, or road rebuilding even for these unaffected by building.

The bigger downside, as Plotch notes, is one in every of political will. Elected officers not often champion transit and stick by its facet as soon as conflicts emerge. Part one of many Second Avenue subway had robust help on the native, state, and federal ranges of presidency, however even these supporters had been cautious to not push again in opposition to public criticism relating to wanted inconveniences like road closures. With out robust political help from the outset, the planning course of focuses on avoiding controversy in any respect prices slightly than delivering top quality transit.  

But when political leaders laid out a robust case to the general public, as they’ve in New York for face masks and public well being, I imagine New Yorkers would settle for and adapt to the inconveniences of building, which might pace up building and scale back prices. In 2016, MTA management proposed and accepted a plan broadly supported by transit riders to close down the L practice for eighteen months in 2019 to hold out important repairs slightly than endure an extended partial shutdown. The MTA finally pursued a distinct technique that prevented a full closure of the tunnel, however the willingness of transit riders to pick higher disruption for a shorter window of building shouldn’t be forgotten as town and MTA take into account new transportation initiatives.


I wasn’t shocked that I needed to cram my means into the entrance automotive of a northbound Q practice or anticipate crowds to clear to look at Lou Reed’s portrait on the 86th Road station on New Yr’s Day, 2017. Like Halley’s Comet or the Mets successful the World Sequence, the opening of subway service alongside Second Avenue felt like a once-in-a-lifetime occasion worthy of celebration.

Part two of the Second Avenue subway was working its means via closing engineering, regulatory approvals, and a federal funding dedication earlier than the Covid-19 pandemic hit. It’s unimaginable to say when building of part two will start, however relaxation assured that the Second Avenue subway will someday reemerge as a part of a transportation bond act for voters to approve, or a part of an formidable politician’s transportation imaginative and prescient. In 1976, when New York appeared getting ready to collapse, former MTA Chair David Yunich was requested in an interview if he thought the Second Avenue subway would ever be constructed. His response: “Nicely, ‘ever’ is a very long time.”

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