Don’t hold your breath

Original Reporting | By Kevin C. Brown |

It’s not really an addition; it’s a replacement

“Even though it has been long overdue,” Peter Derrick, a former assistant director in the capital program management department and planning department of the MTA and now a visiting fellow at the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University, told Remapping Debate, the Second Avenue subway “is actually the replacement project for the Second and Third Avenue Els [elevated railways].” Before they were torn down in the 1940s and 1950s, the presence of these elevated trains meant, according to Derrick, who has also written a book on the expansion of the subway system at the start of the twentieth century, “[Y]ou had twice the capacity of the rapid transit system on the East Side of Manhattan.”

In other words, a full-blown Second Avenue subway would belatedly bring back transit benefits already lost.

Since the removal of the Els, the only subway on the East Side is the Lexington Avenue Line (“the Lex”), two blocks west of Second Avenue. The Lex is the busiest rapid transit line in the United States, carrying some 1.3 million passengers on an average weekday — including roughly 400,000 riders during each of the AM and PM rush hours in Manhattan. (The West Side of the city has two subway lines running the length of the island.) “Anybody that rides the Lex,” explained Joseph P. Viteritti, professor of public policy and chair of the urban affairs and planning department at Hunter College, CUNY, “knows that it is overcrowded…I know that when I travel during the rush hour, I have to stand in the 68th street station and let three trains go by before I can get on it.”

A “three-mile subway stub from 125th Street to 63rd Street will utterly fail to accomplish its goal ⎯ relief of crowding on the Lexington Avenue line.” ⎯ Jeffrey Zupan, 1999 Statements

Viteritti’s experience is not unique. According to the Federal Transit Administration, over the course of a 15-minute period of the morning rush hour, some stations may have 3,000 passengers utilizing the platform. That causes “significant delays in service due to the excessive overcrowding along station platforms and queuing on stairways.”

The MTA calculates that if the Second Avenue subway were completed from 125th Street to downtown Manhattan, the line would carry 560,000 people on an average weekday, reducing some of the burden on the Lexington Avenue Line (it would carry even more if, as discussed in the box bellow, it were built to link to New Yorkers who live in the Bronx). By contrast, the nation’s second and third largest rapid transit systems — the Washington, DC Metro and the Chicago “El,” — carry in their entirety 744,000 and 703,000 passengers on weekdays, respectively.

In addition to relieving overcrowding on existing service, a Second Avenue subway would, as Peter Derrick told Remapping Debate, increase the accessibility of public transit to residents and workers and “reduce travel time for those living east of Third Avenue…because they don’t have to walk or take the bus.” The MTA has reported to the Federal Transit Administration, for example, that 93 percent of Upper East Side and East Harlem residents who currently live further than one-half mile from the Lexington Avenue Line would have less than that distance to travel to get to that part of the Second Avenue subway being constructed in Phase 1. (The utility of the new service for residents, of course, would depend on whether the service took them where they needed to go.)

In 2003, the Partnership for New York City released a report in an effort to quantify the potential economic and transportation benefits of a variety of proposed transportation projects in New York City. The study, partially based on research by Paaswell and his University Transportation Research Center, found that the Second Avenue subway would recapture 55 percent of its cost in transportation benefits (calculated by summing the value of time saved by all riders from reductions in travel, waiting, and walking time, and through declines in overcrowding and transfers as a result of the project). The study also found that the project would recoup 82 percent of its cost in economic benefits (determined by calculating the value in the appreciation of property values and the increases in jobs and sales) over a 50-year period. A major reason that the benefits weren’t higher (a few other projects had higher cost-benefit ratios), the Partnership reasoned, was “largely due to the 17 years it is expected to take to complete a full build-out of the line.”

What about the Bronx?

“The other thing that people tend to forget about,” Peter Derrick, the transit historian and former MTA planner, told Remapping Debate, “is that the original Second Avenue subway plan that the MTA had back in 1968, when they revived it for the third time [after the 1920s and 1950s], was to [continue it into] the Bronx to replace the Third Avenue El,” which was torn down in 1973. “And nobody is talking about anything in the Bronx [now].”

Robert Abrams, the Bronx borough president when construction ceased in the mid-1970s, was interviewed for a 1975 Channel Thirteen documentary and said, “If people are saying that Second Avenue is a wrong priority, I think they are mistaken again…They don’t understand that the Second Avenue subway was created to be a major help to the borough of the Bronx.” In addition to the Third Avenue corridor, Abrams commented, the large Bronx communities of Parkchester and the then relatively new Co-op City lay far from subway access. Canceling the project meant, Abrams thought, that “we are losing sight as to what the main purpose of the second avenue subway was: to open up a new link between the central business district of downtown Manhattan and the borough of the Bronx.” 

Robert Paaswell told Remapping Debate that “to really create incredible economic growth in the region,” the Second Avenue subway needs to “link it to Brooklyn at one end and the Bronx on the other.”

The Regional Plan Association’s recent 2011 planning document, Tomorrow’s Transit: New Mobility for the Urban Core, agreed, reiterating the importance of improving the “poor coverage and slow service” in parts of the Bronx by adding subway service on two or more routes. Given the existing Second Avenue subway plan for just two tracks, however, completing all of these Bronx connections would mean that “the capacity of the Second Avenue line would be compromised, leading to a lower frequency of service.”

The current Second Avenue subway plan calls for the northern end of the tunnel in Manhattan to be engineered for a future Bronx connection, but not anything more.

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