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Getting from A New Deal to a Y2K Subway System: A Second Avenue Subway Story

by Albert F. Appleton

New York has a 1930s subway system. About the time Mr. Deeds came to town, New York stopped building subways. Since then, the most significant change to the passenger rail service has been the tearing down of the Second and Third Avenue Elevated lines, leaving the system significantly smaller than it was in 1940.

Sixty years later, Y2K New York is a different town than the one Mr. Deeds knew. Population has shifted to the East Side in Manhattan and dispersed to the fringes of the other boroughs. Midtown has become the leading jobs center, and office jobs have replaced manufacturing ones.

Thus, New York's New Deal era subway system, with its inadequate capacity and obsolete route network, is not a nostalgia trip. It means myriad New Yorkers must spend an hour a day jammed into three square feet of space, take long and unpleasant walks to make transfers, and routinely struggle with service delays. It means travelers must invest lots of time, money and anxiety to get to LaGuardia and JFK airports because rail transit didn't need to go there sixty years ago. And it means that non-Manhattan residents can often take longer to get to their hometown jobs than it would take a commuter from Philadelphia

Now is the moment in political time when all that can finally change.

In the background of the Second Avenue debate, a few voices can be heard suggesting that computerizing the traditional signal technologies that currently control how far apart subway trains run (headways) would enable the MTA to safely run more trains, and thereby eliminate subway overcrowding without laying down new tracks. What adds interest to this argument is that there is general agreement that subway signal and communication systems need to be computerized anyway. So why not accelerate signal computerization and kill two birds with one stone?

Computerized signal controls will enable headways to be reduced. But perversely, and decisively, they would not enable more trains to be run on the most overcrowded lines where new capacity is most critically needed.

On the most overcrowded lines, it is not signal capacity that limits the number of trains, but the length of dwell time that trains have to spend in the station. For example, existing signal systems can safely manage 27 trains an hour on the Lexington Avenue line, though it runs only 24. Its severely overcrowded trains must take so much time at each station to board and detrain passengers that to run more than 24 trains would force the following trains to stop and wait, backing trains up and leading to service breakdowns. A computerized signal system might give the Lexington the train control capacity to run 36 trains an hour, but if overcrowding limits station use to 24 trains an hour than computerizing the signal system, however desirable on its own merits, does not offer an alternative to building a new subway system.

In addition, computerizing signals can only improve service on the existing, 1930s subway network. But an equally critical part of modernizing the subways is building new connections that serve the needs of modern New Yorkers.

Accelerating the computerization of signal systems and passenger communications should be an important element of the MTA's new capital program. But it's no alternative to building a Second Avenue subway MetroLink system.

Every five years, New York must adopt a new five year, multi-billion dollar capital spending plan (the current 1995-1999 plan totals $12.4 billion) for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). As it happens, that five year event takes place this fall. As it also happens, this fall's decision time for determining the MTA's next five years of capital investments coincides with a thirty year high in subway ridership. The result has been an overcrowding-induced deterioration in subway conditions that has energized long suppressed rider discontents at the one time when they can be focused on a real political option: put large amounts of money to build new subways in the next MTA five year capital plan.

A growing list of rider groups, civic interests and public officials are proposing exactly that. They have generated enough momentum to turn the issue of building new subways into a real time political decision. In the next few months, the political system - the MTA, the Governor, the State Legislature, and the Mayor - is actually going to have to choose between leaving the subway network in the 1930s or giving New York a modern system.

That choice is essentially a choice about whether or not to build a Second Avenue subway/MetroLink system.

The Second Avenue subway was designed to take the place of the Second and Third Avenue Els in the citywide transportation system. While the name Second Avenue subway unfortunately suggests a Manhattan-focused project, in fact the Second Avenue subway is the key to modernizing citywide subway service. Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan residents all need a Second Avenue subway to provide more spaces and new, direct routes to East Side Manhattan jobs.

The Regional Plan Association's (RPA) MetroLink proposal best illustrates how at a Second Avenue Subway could transform citywide service. MetroLink integrates a Second Avenue line with new uses of over 40 miles of currently under-utilized subway and commuter rail facilities. The resulting system provides a quarter million new citywide ride spaces from four boroughs into Manhattan job centers during rush hours; new direct connections for 60 major travel markets throughout the City; and a fast, comfortable one seat ride to JFK from Grand Central, Wall Street and downtown Brooklyn.

Those who argue against the mounting demand for a Second Avenue subway/MetroLink program generally dismiss it as overly ambitious and unaffordable. They contend that limited projects are more pragmatic and therefore more likely to produce actual improvements in subway service. Thus the MTA's MESA (Manhattan East Side Alternatives) study rejected a Second Avenue subway in favor of a modest, three mile Upper East Side subway stub.

But what makes such limited proposals "more pragmatic" also makes them terminally incremental. And the downside of incrementalism is that it will not give New York the modernized subway system it needs.

It means the subways will remain a 1930s system, albeit with some added bells and whistles. If New York wants a modern, 21st century subway system, it must build the Second Avenue Subway/MetroLink program. Otherwise it will be taking more nostalgia rides far into the future.

Albert F. Appleton is a Senior Fellow at the Regional Plan Association and a Principal Member of its MetroLink project team. He formerly served as Commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection.

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