Don’t hold your breath

Original Reporting | By Kevin C. Brown |

The Regional Plan Association (RPA), a private, non-profit New York metropolitan area urban planning organization and a long-time proponent of the Second Avenue subway (among many other transit projects), released its own analysis of the benefits of the Second Avenue in 2003 as well, estimating that the transportation benefits alone of the Second Ave subway, once running the length of Manhattan, would be over $1.2 billion [in 2002 dollars] per year, a figure substantially higher than the Partnership’s estimate.

The RPA report, while highlighting the economic and transportation benefits, added that other benefits of a full Second Avenue subway could also be substantial, if harder to quantify, including improved air quality, enhanced transportation options in neighborhoods where poorer residents currently have few alternatives to public transit, the encouragement of more sustainable development, and an increase in overall quality of life.


Going slow has its costs

If there are substantial benefits to completing the Second Avenue subway, there are also considerable costs to building at the current pace and scale.

The transportation benefits of the Second Avenue subway are constrained considerably by its slow implementation. As Jeffrey Zupan, the senior fellow for transportation at RPA and an author of its then just-published “MetroLink: New Transit for New York” urban planning study, explained to the MTA board of directors in 1999, “[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.”

“Ideally, they should have found the money for express tracks,” said Robert Paaswell. “They are going to be very sorry in the future. Because the East Side, which is already dense, is going to become dense like the West Side, and there isn’t enough capacity on the West Side even with express tracks.” 

In fact, based on data from the MTA that Zupan presented to the board, even with the stub in service, crowding during peak periods on the Lex will still be worse in 2020 than it was in 1999. When taking into account another MTA project (now currently underway) that will bring Long Island Rail Road trains to Grand Central Terminal and connect suburban commuters to the Lex, crowding will be even more unbearable: one-third more riders than in 1999. “Why won’t the stub help the Lex rider?” Zupan asked the board rhetorically. “Simple,” without access to the Lower Midtown and the Lower East Side and the Financial District, the stub will not reduce demand on the Lex because the Second Avenue Line “will not take Lex riders where they want to go.”

At the time Zupan made this argument he was specifically lobbying the MTA to fully fund the environmental review and preliminary engineering of the full Second Avenue subway in Manhattan, not just the segment north of 63rd Street as was being proposed. (He won that battle.) But given that the construction of only an even smaller stub has been actually funded (the 96th to 63rd Street segment), the argument remains relevant. There is still, as Zupan said in 1999, “no commitment to anything beyond spending $3.5 billion [now over $4 billion] to complete in 2015 [now 2016] something that will not do the job.”

Though the stated rationale for constructing of Second Avenue Line in phases over decades is an unwillingness to commit to paying the full costs now, it is also true, according to Robert Paaswell, that “the longer you delay the project the more it costs, because costs just escalate over time.” The inflation of material and equipment costs (which may rise faster than the broader inflation rate) as well as unexpected technical obstacles can all increase the price of a project. If construction occurs on a larger scale, a project like the Second Avenue subway could “take advantage of today’s costs rather than tomorrow’s costs,” and means that it “could save a lot of money,” Paaswell told me.


What about the tracks?

Much of the subway system in New York City runs on four tracks (two in each direction), especially in the system’s center of gravity, Manhattan. This allows service to operate like a highway with local trains that make frequent stops staying to the right and express trains passing by in the center and stopping much less frequently. This arrangement shortens trip times while also increasing the overall capacity of the system.

The new Second Avenue subway, however, will be “local” in both directions, being constructed with just two tracks (one in each direction).

“Ideally, they should have found the money for express tracks,” said Robert Paaswell. “They are going to be very sorry in the future. Because the East Side, which is already dense, is going to become dense like the West Side, and there isn’t enough capacity on the West Side even with express tracks.”

The MTA made this design decision, Paaswell suggested, “because they wanted to get the project started, they wanted to come in with a budget that would be acceptable to the State and the Feds…So they made the choice of building something rather than nothing…It could have been designed to a higher standard.” He says frankly that, given the MTA’s prediction of 560,000 riders per day once fully constructed, “I don’t see how they are going to do that on two tracks.”

In another concession to increasing budget limitations, the MTA has further cut back on Phase 1, deciding in 2008 to change the 72nd Street station from a three-track configuration to a two-track configuration in order to save money. That station is where “T” and “Q” service will merge, and three tracks, as the original Final Environmental Impact Statement explained, would allow for a more fluid connection between these services and for some “Q” trains to terminate service at the station (as the “Q” currently does on weekends and off peak at the 57th Street station) without inhibiting “T” service.

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