Plots & Plans logo


The Too-Short Second Avenue Subway


By Carter B. Horsley

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is about to decide on a plan for the Second Avenue Subway, a proposal first considered more than three-quarters of a century ago.

There are basically two proposals before the authority. One would run from 125th Street to 63rd Street. The other would run from 125th Street to the financial district in Lower Manhattan. Both would cost billions of dollars and both are still not long enough. Its critics have aptly called the MTA plan "Stubway."

The MTA has been reported as favoring the former, but many planners and the Borough President of Manhattan, Virginia Fields, support the latter, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whose district includes the Lower East Side, has declared he will veto the short plan.

Both plans are dramatically scaled back versions of much earlier proposals that would have extended the line into the Bronx and Brooklyn and also would have created a 34th Street cross-town link.

Construction on the Second Avenue Subway actually started in the early 1970’s, but was aborted because of the city’s fiscal crisis in the mid-1970’s. Several small sections of the subway were actually built in East Harlem.

Subways are expensive and their construction projects are extremely disruptive to traffic and to their neighborhood’s peace and quiet.

They are, however, also vital to the city’s well-being, shuttling millions of passengers a day at quite remarkable speeds and significantly abating the city’s horrendous street traffic.

The M.T.A. is completing a 15-year, $25-billion, capital improvement program that has enhanced the subway system with many new cars and some nicely refurbished stations. The state of the system, as a result, is vastly improved. The screeching and deafening subways that were covered with graffiti are now generally clean on the outside and much quieter. Some stations, especially on the Broadway line, have been very handsomely redone with new tile work and some art works.

The Second Avenue Subway proposal is not the only important new transit initiative now under consideration. The "Train-To-The-Plane" plan is also being debated. Of the two proposals, the train to the airport plan, which involves the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is more important to the city and like the Second Avenue Subway proposal the cheaper and less efficient plans are currently the most favored, sadly.

The airport plan still requires passengers to make two connections to get to JFK International Airport and does not provide access to LaGuardia Airport. It is completely inadequate and the difficulties of getting to and from JFK remain an inexcusable nightmare for this major entry point that will not be substantially alleviated by this piece-meal proposal.

The same can be said of the Second Avenue Subway plan although certainly it will help many residents of the Upper East Side and relieve some of the overcrowded conditions on the Lexington Avenue line. Plans by the M.T.A. are also moving ahead for a much-needed Long Island Rail Road link between Penn Station, itself in a major state of flux, and Grand Central Terminal. This important link is estimated to cost about $1.6 billion and is likely to significantly increase traffic to and from Grand Central.

Opponents of the current Second Avenue Subway argue that it should extend down to the financial district and the South Street Seaport. They are right. Lower Manhattan still has not fully recovered from the suburban and corporate exodus that began in the 1950’s although a renaissance began about a decade ago with the emergence of the spectacular developments at Battery Park City and the flourishing of older neighborhoods such as SoHo and TriBeCa. Lower Manhattan is much, much more exciting than it was when the Second Avenue Subway was aborted in the early 1970’s and clearly Lower Manhattan and Midtown South are very vibrant and the sites of considerable development to come, all of which could use better transit access.

The city is an historic economic peak. Historically, the city's subways have pioneered significant new real estate development and certainly a new line could focus attention again on the Lower East Side and East Harlem and parts of the Bronx and Brooklyn.

If the city is great, it must be capable of undertaking great things. It did that when it built its subway system. For almost half a century, the Federal Government, and the states, have favored suburban highways over inner city infrastructure despite the known environmental problems of sprawl and air pollution from cars.

The city, of course, is not stagnating and a pint-size, patch-work approach to the Second Avenue Subway will still be some improvement and hopefully can be designed so that it can be greatly expanded.

Such a short-sighted approach, however, especially one that initially primarily helps only residents of the city's richest district, is not in the best interests of the city and its residents. The city's political leadership, starting at the Mayor's Office, should adopt a long-range transportation plan that will result in a more efficient, more wonderful, more convenient city for its residents and its visitors. Such a plan should not be limited by political term horizons, nor the boundaries of the Second Avenue Subway. The subway should help the residents of The Bronx and Brooklyn as well as Manhattan. With a northern terminus at Co-op City and a southern terminus at the South Street Seaport and links to Brooklyn and new shuttles across 34th Street and 42nd Street and to the city's airports, New York would be a better place.

Such gigantic public works projects generally cost way more than public officials indicate, but these transit projects eventually produce income directly and indirectly when they are completed, to say nothing of the jobs they generate during the long construction period.

There is still time to argue forcefully and to campaign for a great Second Avenue Subway that brings new life to many long ignored. The full plan should be adopted even if it has to be phased. Do the right thing, now. It will only be more difficult later.

Click here to visit excellent website, with good history of this controversial project


Home Page of The City Review