2015-05-06 / Editorials

Second Avenue Subway Delayed Again?


Recent announcements that due to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s $15.2 billion dollar shortfall in the proposed $32 billion 2015-2019 Capital Program that the next phase for construction of the Second Avenue subway may be delayed is nothing new. A trip down memory lane will help explain why progress has been so slow for construction of the long anticipated Metropolitan Transportation Authority Second Avenue subway. The first of four segments for the new Second Avenue subway (consisting of three stations between 96th Street and 63rd Street on the east side of Manhattan) cost $4.5 billion – or $2 billion per mile. The original start of construction took place at 103rd Street and Second Avenue in 1972. Work was suspended in 1975 due to the municipal fiscal crises faced by then Mayor, the late Abe Beame. This resulted in a financial shortfall in funding. A second groundbreaking took place on April 12, 2007. The revenue service date of 2013 within one year was revised to 2014. It was announced at a later date due to cost overruns delayed until 2015. Good news is that this portion of the work based upon the most recent construction project recovery schedule is proceeding on time and within budget. The most current beneficial use date for opening of revenue service is now forecast for December 2016. Don’t be surprised if this date, based upon past history since 2007, slips to some time in 2017.

One trick used by transit managers to complete any project within budget, is to drop a portion of the original scope of work. This saves the necessary dollars which were not available to deliver 100 percent of what was originally promised. The dirty little secret no one will talk about is that in an attempt to save costs, a decision was made early on in the project to delete a third center express track which was part of the original proposed project scope. This saved having to construct a third tunnel which would have easily cost well over $1 billion.

It will take several decades and easily up to $20 billion or more could be required to include an express track for completion of the next three segments of the Second Avenue subway north to 125th Street and south to Hanover Square downtown in the Financial District. With a $15.2 billion dollar shortfall in the proposed MTA 2015-2019 Capital Program, there is currently no guarantee that several billion dollars will be available to build the second segment north from 96th Street to 125th Street

Canceling construction for the next phase also means giving up hundreds of millions to a billion or more in potential federal transportation New Starts funding. This would have paid for a significant portion of the project. Without providing local matching dollars toward the project costs, you forfeit the opportunity to leverage these dollars for additional federal funds.

Transportation planners and some elected officials for decades have advocated extending the proposed Second Avenue subway north to the Bronx and south to Brooklyn. In today’s dollars, you would have to double the complete project cost to $40 billion! It’s only 85 years since the Second Avenue subway was announced (in 1929) with an anticipated cost of $86 million. In 1939, the estimated cost was $249 million. In 1942, the Second Avenue “el” ended service and was quickly demolished. Steel from the el structure was used to support the war effort. It has been only 64 years since the full-financing bonds were issued for it (in 1950) with an estimated cost of $504 million and only 59 years since the Third Avenue elevated subway, known as the Third Avenue el was demolished with promises of an Second Avenue subway to replace it “soon” (in 1955).

In that time, the proposed Second Avenue subway has been reduced from a six-track plan to a two-track plan. Replacing six tracks worth of elevated subways or els on 2nd and 3rd (both lines had center express tracks).

Will anyone living today be alive to ride the full Second Avenue subway from uptown to downtown Manhattan? Time will tell.

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