Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Good and Bad News on Second Avenue Subway


Second Avenue Subway projection (image via the MTA)

Two of the perks of being college professors are that we don't usually have to ride the subway during rush hour and we get to tell the truth about politicians. For those of you who do have to deal with the morning crush, we have both good and bad news about the mythical Second Avenue Subway.

The first section of the line, a 1.5 mile segment from 96 Street to 63 Street should open by 2017 after nearly a century of false starts. This new Upper East Side line is expected to carry about 200,000 riders per day, a higher ridership than Los Angeles's 17 mile subway system. It will connect with the Q train so that you will be able to travel from 96 Street down Second Avenue, west across 63 Street and then down Broadway without having to transfer. You will never have to actually ride under Second Avenue to appreciate its benefits though, because this segment will reduce congestion on the Lexington Avenue Line's overcrowded 4, 5, and 6 trains by more than 10 percent.

The Lexington Avenue Line is the only subway on Manhattan's east side and it already carries more passengers than the combined ridership of San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston's entire transit systems. During peak periods, passengers so crowd the subway cars and platforms that they are slowing down trains at stations, reducing the number of trains that the MTA can operate, and making the crowded conditions even worse. Once the first section of the Second Avenue Subway is completed, the Lexington Avenue Line trains will not only be less crowded, but also more reliable and faster. All good news.

When it is complete, the Second Avenue subway will be 8.5 miles long extending from East Harlem down to Lower Manhattan. The next section is supposed to include three new stations. Two of them are under Second Avenue, one at 106 Street and the other at 116 Street. The third station will provide the most benefits: 125 Street at Lexington Avenue where passengers will be able to connect with both the Lexington Avenue line and Metro-North Railroad.

Now, the bad news.

Our esteemed city leaders promised a working Second Avenue line in the 1920s, '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, '90s, and 2000s. It's a shame that so many politicians made these promises because if they had been more realistic, the city might never have torn down the elevated train lines that once ran above Second and Third Avenues from the Bronx to the Lower Manhattan. Likewise, the MTA would not have started construction in the 1970s only to abandon tunnels a few years later.

How long will it take to complete the subway all the way to Lower Manhattan? Well, unless you're young enough that a parent is still packing you peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for school every day - maybe not in your lifetime.

The most recent incarnation of the Second Avenue Subway was born about 15 years ago when the MTA did something smart. Its planners made sure the line would be built in stages so that each stage would have benefits even if the whole line was never completed.

The state and city are now facing a major dilemma about beginning the second stage to 125 Street. The MTA is facing a massive $14 billion hole in its five-year capital program and already has over $34 billion in outstanding debt even before it begins the next phase of the Second Avenue. The MTA cannot afford to continue building the new line without outside financial help.

At the same time, two factors will make the Lexington Avenue line much more crowded. First, the city is continuing to encourage both new residential and commercial growth along the east side. Second, the MTA is completing construction of the East Side Access project that will connect the Long Island Rail Road with Grand Central Terminal where thousands of riders every day will transfer to the 42 Street station on the Lexington Avenue line.

The governor, who controls the MTA board of directors, will make the final decision about its capital program. So what will Governor Andrew Cuomo do? He has committed himself politically to limiting any increase to taxes, tolls, and fares. He is also talking about another megaproject– an elevated train connection to LaGuardia Airport. Since he has already called the MTA capital program bloated, it is clear he is going to be making cuts.

Cuomo's choices are all unpleasant for riders. The MTA could replace fewer subway cars, fix up fewer subway stations, or buy fewer new buses. It might have to postpone plans to replace tracks, signals, and its other critical and aging infrastructure. The $1.5 billion proposal for just starting the next phase of the Second Avenue Subway will clearly be one of his biggest targets.

Our guess is that he is going to announce that New York is still committed to building stage two, but he is going to take away nearly all the funds allocated for it. That is what his political advisors are probably whispering into his ear right now. Cuomo will never get credit for having the idea to build the Second Avenue Subway line and he will not be in office long enough to take credit for its completion.

The MTA doesn't really need to finish the subway line when it can just do what Tokyo does. The MTA can hire "oshiyas," outfit them in snazzy uniforms and white gloves, and have them push people onto overcrowded rush hour trains. Just think of it as an opportunity to meet, touch, and smell more of your neighbors.

If that doesn't sound like a good way to travel on the East Side in the future - and it sounds awful to us - you might want to consider calling your elected representatives.

by Philip M. Plotch and Nicholas D. Bloom

Plotch is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Masters in Public Administration program at Saint Peter's University in Jersey City. He is the former director of World Trade Center Redevelopment and Special Projects for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, and the former manager of planning for New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority. He is the author of Politics Across the Hudson: The Tappan Zee Megaproject.

Bloom is associate professor at the New York Institute of Technology where he is also Chair of Urban Administration and Interdisciplinary Studies. He has written many books including The Metropolitan Airport: JFK International and Modern New York and the forthcoming edited collection from Princeton University Press, Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places, and Policies That Transformed a City.

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