Second Avenue Subway Keeps on Slipping Into the Future

brt_config_3.jpgWhy wait? The optimal BRT configuration on First and Second Avenues would convert multiple traffic lanes to physically separated busways.

Following another revision to the Second Avenue Subway construction timetable, the first phase of the mega-project remains, as ever, about seven or eight years away from completion. Pete Donohue reports in the Daily News:

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority
has finished an in-depth analysis of the work schedule, budget and
potential hurdles for the long-awaited addition to the system, sources
told the News.

The conclusion: the official completion date for phase one of the
project should be pushed from June 2015 to December 2016, with possible
future delays placing the opening in the summer of 2017, the sources

The original schedule for the first phase projected a 2012 completion
date but MTA officials have pushed the date back several times over the
years — most recently in March 2008.

I’m lucky. I don’t have to put up with sardine-style rush-hour commuting on the Lexington Avenue line. But if I did, I’d want relief as soon as possible. Eight years is a long time to ask people to wait, especially when a viable alternative like physically separated Bus Rapid Transit can be provided much sooner, at much less expense. And if experience is any guide, this won’t be the last time the Second Avenue Subway gets pushed back, either.

ITDP director Walter Hook said it well in an interview with Streetsblog this February:

I don’t know why Japanese and Chinese cities can roll out 10 miles of
new subway line a year, and the richest city in the world has been
trying and failing to build the Second Avenue Subway since the 1960s.
But I’ve lived in this town a long time, and I am skeptical. The
optimists are telling us that we will have a Second Avenue Subway
between 125th Street and 63rd Street by 2015 and only after we spend $4
to $5 billion. So this means we are probably talking about 2018 or
2020, and $10 billion. The Second Avenue Subway would be great, it’s
needed, it would have higher demand than almost any other metro line in
the country. At those volumes, metros are often a good investment. But
will it happen?

The MTA has a huge hole in its next capital program, with billions in funding for core maintenance still unaccounted for. That comes first, no matter what. If our legislative goons in Albany can’t muster the will to fund mega-projects, too, we can still expand the system: On the east side of Manhattan, the right BRT configuration would carry almost as many commuters as the Second Avenue Subway, for a fraction of the cost.

  • I don’t see how BRT could possibly have the same ridership or capacity as a heavy rail line like the Second Avenue Subway (if Mr. Hook has some real numbers on cost–not the cost of building BRT in Columbia but building true BRT in NYC–and capacity, I’d love to see them). Let’s not sell our selves short here. The SAS is being built because we need it. BRT is not a substitute for heavy rail.

  • BRT versus Zero

    The equation isn’t BRT versus Second Avenue subway, it’s BRT versus nothing. Because Second Avenue cannot be built. It would take new bridge tolls or many billions from congress. You really think congress is going to find that $8 to $10 billion for Second Avenue? National transit advocates seemed happy that there was $5 billion in this interim federal transpo bill for all transit in the United States.

  • James

    Recent experience has shown that this city does not have what it takes to build additional heavy rail. The subways are like the Saturn V moon rocket; we can’t afford to build those kinds of things anymore. We are broke, as is the nation, and it’s probably not going to get any better in the foreseeable future. Take a look some time at the full build out map for the NYC subway from the 1930s if you really want to get depressed – you can find it online if you do a search. The system we have now is just a shadow of what it could and should be but that’s all we are ever going to have as far as subways go. Therefore, I am all for BRT – I used to think it was just rail’s poorer, less capable cousin but frankly, it’s the best we are capable of doing in this day and age, so get to it and start painting lanes.

  • This bit from Walter Hook leaped out at me: “…it would have higher demand than almost any other metro line in the country.”

    Sounds like a high priority to me.

  • gecko

    I am having a difficult time understanding this.

    The proposed Second Avenue Subway is to be built underground in a linear fashion with at most two trains, an express and a local, going in each direction or four trains total.

    Each train is less than nine feet wide so that the direction of travel must be a minimum of 36 feet.

    Despite all this effort to get bus rapid transit or the proposed subway
    system why is it perceived that there is not enough space on the surfaces of First Avenue, Second Avenue, Third Avenue, etc. to move the equivalent number people by other less costly and more practical and convenient means; especially, since these commuters will begin and end up there anyway?

  • vnm

    “I don’t know why Japanese and Chinese cities can roll out 10 miles of new subway line a year.”

    They can do it for the same reason they manufacture seemingly all of America’s consumer goods, and for the same reason that we could build the entire Second Avenue Elevated in about a decade.

    Cheap labor.

    (Whether in the form of impoverished 19th century first-generation Irish immigrants, or an urbanizing 21st century Chinese peasantry.)

  • The last time we got Chinese labor to build another kind of rail, was with the cross country railroad lines. And it was built a lot quicker than it would be done today. Nowadays the safety requirements here in the West is much more stricter, and with better building standards than in China.

  • jwb

    The reason the Chinese can roll out huge public works is totalitarianism. Do you want that here?

  • James, if Santo Domingo can build a new subway line, we can too. The line is half built already. For all the flaws in the current Second Avenue Subway plan, we can finish it and we should.

    That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have bus improvements on the surface as well, and now rather than later. So what are you all doing to get BRT on Second Avenue? Have you been lobbying Community Boards 8 and 11? Because it’s just lame to set “BRT” up as an alternative to the Second Avenue Subway and do nothing to make it actually happen.

  • There’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water here. Plenty of western democracies have built heavy rail subways faster and cheaper. Barcelona is building a 25 mile tunnel that they say will be done by 2012. Maybe someone can explain exactly why the cost is so high but my uneducated guesses are:

    -Bidding took place during the construciton boom when workers and materials were as expensive as they’ve ever been
    -There are not as many large construction firms that are able to do the work in NYC and those firms often have deep relationships with city agencies and are able to jack up the price.
    -Rules that require low bidders to be approved even if such bidders cannot adequately complete the job.

    We need to be able to complete these kinds of major infrastructure projects without giving up. The momentum generated by completing more projects is fantastic. When this is done the city will have more energy to start more projects and more people with the skills and experience to get the job done. If we quit and go home it’s kind of like admitting that we will never be able to handle projects of this complexity again, and that would be an even greater loss than not building a Second Avenue Subway.

  • Sal

    You know why Japan and China could lay out 10 miles of subway in a year??? because they dont have to put up with all the political BS that NYers have to.

  • Since when has Japan been lacking in political BS?

  • bikerider

    “This bit from Walter Hook leaped out at me: ‘…it would have higher demand than almost any other metro line in the country.'”

    It would have higher demand than all other metro lines COMBINED.

    Remember that, next time you read about BILLIONS in FTA funding being pissed away on rinky dink light rail lines in autotopia hell-holes like Phoenix, San Jose, or Sacramento.

  • BRTvsHeavyRail

    I call total BS on this idea that BRT properly configured can carry as much as a subway.

    It is simply not true. Having lived in LA in the 1990s I saw this song and dance back then as well by the BRT people. They said it would attract people to ride it, it was a subway on wheels, with the same speed and capacity of the subway etc etc.

    Reality shows it cannot carry the same amount because the buses dont carry nearly enough and you can only run them so frequently due to cross-traffic.

    Look at Wilshire Blvd in LA, BRT was supposed to save it from having a subway there, and the buses are jammed with no ability to add more (and they never got their own lane either).

    Plus when a bus has a crash, and they will with cross traffic etc, and people get injured the MTA will be forced to slow down the BRT.

    BRT has its place but please this BRT is a subway on wheels stuff is insulting and frankly naive.

  • Peter Smith

    did my comment get culled? could have swore i was staring at it after it successfully posted. 🙁

  • Rob Stumpf

    Since Robert Moses, we really haven’t built anything at all of serious note (except for perhaps the water tunnel, which is largely out of city limits). We can’t even rebuild Ground Zero, which is mostly a hole in the ground nearly ten years later. We’ve lost the will and the energy and the drive to do such things. Our public institutions have grown ridiculously fat, corrupt and useless, mirroring the society they represent.

  • gecko

    Packing people into large vechicles such as buses and trains and moving them fast is not the most efficient, comfortable, practical, cost-effective way to provide transportation. It is just that simple.

  • gecko

    Ants are really smart and they really like to move and they are really strong and they build stuff. You don’t see ants building ant buses and ant trains and carrying them on their backs.

    They stream all about quite well without the terrific overhead required to transport their companions in large vehicles.

    And, if they only had bicycles!

  • gecko

    Transporting data in packets and frames requires a certain amount of overhead often described as headers and footers to define these packets and frames and an analog to the train and bus containers that transportation designers build for people (or vice versa).

    Large headers and footers means that a lot of data has to be allocated to these structures and less data can be transported at a given time over a given line unless the packets can be sent faster.

    Streaming data eliminates this.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Look at what we are using here: the internet. Information technology is just about the only thing that has happened in the past 25 years that has actually allowed younger generations to have it better than people used to.

    You’d think that here in New York they could have stopped it. How did they let it happen?

  • Cavan

    Let’s stop with the bs about BRT being any sort of replacement for heavy rail. You get what you pay for. End of story.

  • Heres a link to the 1939 planned subway map James was talking about earlier

    It’s to bad all the federal money after WWII started going to road works and not to trains, otherwise this plan would be a reality.

  • “the richest city in the world has been trying and failing to build the Second Avenue Subway since the 1960s.”
    The NYT says it was first announced in 1929.

    The problem, of course, is that all the federal funding after WWII went to highways, and the subways were not expanded after the 1930s.

    But there is a growing realization that we need to turn around federal transportation spending to fight global warming. The fact that NY is expanding the subways again for the first time in 70 years is an early sign of this change, and the change should accellerate in the future.

  • Peter Smith

    the answer to dealing with setbacks should not generally be ‘give up’ — it should instead be ‘persevere’.

    we should get some real oversight of the 2nd Ave project, that’s for sure.

    but quitting is not the answer. big projects sometimes take a long time to complete — and that’s ok. our kids and grandkids will thank us. let’s be better than our parents’ generation — let’s not ruin what’s left of the country. that means sacrificing today for a better tomorrow — on at least this issue.

    if we decided to bail on the subway system, at least we should provide surface rail. why not? i hear other countries do it. and New York City used to have a whole network of surface rail. it can be done again.

    as for moving people from point A to point B, there are plenty of ways to do it, and us advocates have a large say. we should be promoting decent, dignified transportation, not jam-packing people into BRT buses, treating people like human cargo — like some sort of modern-day slave ship.

  • Nathanael

    Um, this schedule is indeed ludicrous. The hard part is the surface digging, because of all the buried utilities and undocumented basements, and they’ve *done* most of that.

    Boring deep tunnels is straightforward; mining is straightforward; laying track and signal is straightforward; filling in a station is straightforward. Why do the feds not believe that the easy part can be completed in six years?

  • Woody

    This delay suggests that we should hurry to start work on Part 2, heading up from 96th St. to 125. If it’s gonna take longer than expected, we should start on it earlier.

    Anyway, I do believe the SAS has reached or passed the point of no return. So much work has been done, so much has been spent, that it would be total folly to stop the project and settle for buses.

    The Second Avenue Sagas blog reported that the earlier estimates were overoptimistic, and shoring up walls along the subway route, for example, turned out to be more time-consuming than forecast.

    Nonetheless the Second Avenue line is worth completing, certainly Parts 1 & 2.

    Ben Kabak of SAS also does a calculation re BRT:
    “Articulated buses can fit 145 passengers. To meet the demand of just 200,000 passengers, the MTA would have to run around 58 buses per hour for 24 hours. Simply put, that’s impossible.”

  • gecko

    #26 Woody, “To meet the demand of just 200,000 passengers . . .”

    Obviously, you’re talking about meeting the demand by distributing these people over time vertically and horizontally.

    Of course, you can do this at any given time by sending them straight to their destinations. Subways cannot do this. And, remember you are spending a minimum of $2 billion per mile build costs with additional $billions ongoing thereafter.

  • gecko

    #26 Woody (more), “To meet the demand of just 200,000 passengers . . .”

    During the last three Saturdays in August 2009 (Aug 8, 15, 22) Park Avenue will be closed to cars from 72nd Street down to Centre Street and the Brooklyn Bridge for the 200,000 people expected to participate.

  • Shannon

    Is anyone able to identify the errors in the (2nd ave subway) project conception along the way, and show how a different framing of the project would have made a difference and why??

    I look forward to your feedback/thoughts!


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