While the Rest of the Subway System Crumbles, MTA to Spend $6B on 3 Stations

Issue 242

John Tarleton Dec 14, 2018

The MTA has a long-term plan to make life easier for New York City’s beleaguered commuters — at least a few of them. It will cost billions of dollars and won’t be ready for a decade or longer. Is it a new, modernized signal system to replace the antiquated one from the 1930s that keeps trains creeping through dimly lit tunnels like giant metallic caterpillars?

Not so fast.

The MTA is ready to move forward with its plan to extend the Q line by three stations from 96th Street to 125th Street after the Federal Transit Administration greenlighted the project on Nov. 19, making it eligible for as much as $2 billion in federal assistance.

The new stations represent Phase 2 of the Second Avenue subway project. They will be located at 106th and 116th Streets in East Harlem before the train reaches 125th Street and veers over to connect with the 4-5-6 line at 125th and Lexington Avenue, as well as the nearby Metro-North station.

Illustration by Gary Martin.

Phase 1 extended the Q train by three stations from 63rd to 96th Street at a cost of $4 billion, the most expensive subway dig in human history.  Phase 2 is projected to cost upwards of $6 billion with a projected completion date of between 2027 to 2029. The really long-term plan is to extend the subway line all the way down the East Side to the financial district in Lower Manhattan.

“It’s all about real estate,” said Tom Angotti, professor emeritus of urban planning at Hunter College and co-author of Zoned Out! Race, Displacement and City Planning in New York City. “The hottest piece of real estate in Manhattan is the Upper East Side and then going up into East Harlem.”

The Second Avenue subway follows in the pricey footsteps of projects such as the $2.7 billion extension of the 7 train by one station from Times Square to 33rd and 11th Avenue, site of the Hudson Yards luxury real estate development project. Then, of course, there’s the East Side Access project, which will allow Long Island Rail Road commuters to connect with Grand Central Station and the Upper East Side. That project is years behind schedule and its projected cost has ballooned from $3.5 billion to more than $11 billion.

“The subway system was originally built to move people into Midtown,” Angotti said. “Today the areas that need mass transit the most are outside Manhattan and they need to be connected to each other.”

According to Aaron Gordon, author of the Signal Problems newsletter, a key way to rein in subway construction costs would be to change regulations that require new subway stations to be much larger than is necessary.

“If you just go to a Second Avenue station, you can see how much space there is compared to other subway stations and that really makes things way more expensive than they necessarily have to be,” Gordon told Indy Radio News.

The dream of a Second Avenue subway dates back to the 1920s and was revived in the mid-2000s. Benjamin Kabak, author of the Second Avenue Sagas transit blog, warns that it will take upwards of 20 years to complete all of six new subway stations on this one line. “This is an unsustainable pace for a city trying to keep pace with international peers and in desperate need of massive expansion of its transit network,” he wrote on his blog.

The MTA should stop pouring money into new subway lines, Angotti told The Indy, get most cars off the road and invest instead in less glamorous (and less costly) dedicated bus lanes that deliver riders to existing subway stations. This would bring better transit service to all corners of the city. To accomplish this, he added, will require overcoming the objections of neighborhood car owners who don’t want to lose parking spaces to bus lanes and the NYPD which doesn’t want to be bothered with the mundane task of safeguarding dedicated bus lanes from other users who might clog it up.

“These are political barriers that the elected officials don’t want to confront,” Angotti said.

Photo (top): The gargantuan 86th Street Second Avenue Station. The MTA wants to build three more uptown. Credit: Patrick Cashin/MTA.

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