Pressing the Pause Button Under Manhattan’s Second Avenue. Yet Again.

When New York’s governor, Kathy Hochul, postponed America’s first congestion pricing program this month, she inadvertently hit pause on the project that has come to symbolize America’s unfulfilled transit ambitions.

On June 18, the head of the construction subsidiary for New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) admitted that the agency had “stopped work” on the second phase of the Second Avenue subway. The nation’s largest transportation agency does not have sufficient funds to proceed with the project because it has been relying on congestion pricing to provide $15 billion for its current $54.8 five-year capital program.

The MTA, which carries more subway and commuter passengers than every other U.S. transit system combined, is understandably placing a higher priority on its state of good repair projects. Left unsaid, however, is that the agency lacks the resources to bring its system up to a state of good repair in the foreseeable future.

Long Overdue

The MTA’s website still indicates the second phase of the Second Avenue Subway is a transportation project that is “long overdue.” Long overdue is an understatement.

Since 1903, New Yorkers have been talking about building a subway under Second Avenue on Manhattan’s East Side. While two subway lines run the length of Manhattan’s West Side, only one line operates along the entire East Side. That is why the East Side’s trains are the most crowded in the country.

In 1929, the City of New York announced that the centerpiece of the subway expansion program’s next phase would be a Second Avenue subway. A few weeks later, however, the stock market crashed and the nation entered the Great Depression. In 1932, city officials paused work relating to the Second Avenue subway and two years later, they acknowledged that the project would have to be postponed indefinitely.

But, the city did not “kill” the Second Avenue subway. It would remain comatose.

In a 1944 speech to the city council, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia said, “The preparation of engineering plans for the construction of the Second Avenue subway has not been interrupted.” He added, “Engineering plans will be available and ready at the propitious moment and when financial conditions permit.”

The moment seemed propitious in 1947 when New York’s mayor promised that increasing the subway fare would allow the city to build the Second Avenue subway. Fares did go up — the first increase since the subways were first opened in 1904 – but New Yorkers were duped about getting a new subway.

In the 1960s, the state’s governor and city’s mayor hit the play button on the Second Avenue subway. Voters approved a referendum that would provide the MTA with the funding needed to build it, and at a groundbreaking ceremony, the governor proclaimed, “Ladies and gentlemen, the talking and the planning and the promising stages are over.” Construction began, simultaneously, on four different segments, constituting 1.5 miles of the proposed 14.3-mile line.

However, with the city facing a fiscal crisis, the project was paused again in 1975. The mayor said, “We cannot abandon the Second Avenue subway; we must, however, defer it.” The MTA chairman presciently said, the project might be delayed “to the turn of the century, when a lot of us will be playing harps instead of riding subways.”

The city and the MTA did not want to cancel the project; otherwise, they would have to return the federal funds that had been used to construct the initial tunnel segments. The MTA has maintained these abandoned tunnels for more than 50 years, making sure the structures are sound, dry, and clean.

One of the abandoned tunnels under Second Avenue.  Source: MTA.

In 1988, the Second Avenue subway was resurrected by four young men in a crumbling old office building in downtown Brooklyn. They dusted off the old drawings and by 2001, building the subway line had received overwhelming support from the public, the media, and local elected officials. The MTA announced that the 8.5-mile Second Avenue subway line would be completed by 2020.

Transit advocates at the time were worried the MTA would not have enough funding to build all of the subway’s planned four phases. They were right, although the first phase did open to rave reviews on New Year’s Day in 2017.

Opening of the 86 Street station. Source: MTA

On a per-mile basis, the completed section of the Second Avenue subway was the most expensive subway extension ever built, anywhere in the world. If the subway’s thirteen other planned stations are ever completed, the 8.5-mile line would be one of the world’s most expensive infrastructure projects, surpassing the cost of the rail tunnel between England and France.

Map of the four phases along with key features. Source: MTA.

Kicking off the Second Phase

Last November, Governor Hochul and U.S. DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced the FTA had signed off on a $3.4 billion full funding grant agreement which included the largest award in the history of the FTA’s Capital Investment Grant program.

The Second Avenue subway project’s tortured history does not bode well for city or the country. New York and the nation’s competitors around the world are not satisfied with the status quo, or with relying on hundred-year-old transit facilities. For instance, while New York was constructing the Second Avenue subway’s first phase (a 1.5-mile-long stretch with three new stations), Beijing added more than 250 miles of new subway lines.

Will the second phase — let alone the third and fourth phases — ever be built?  The MTA chair, David Yunich, had a good answer for that question in 1976. He responded, “Well, ‘ever’ is a long time.”

This article includes excerpts from Philip Plotch’s book about the Second Avenue subway. Published by Cornell University Press, it is titled, “Last Subway: The Long Wait for the Next Train in New York.”

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