Construction at the 72nd Street Station, as of May 2013, on the Second Avenue subway line. MTA

The city is paying a steep price to build the much-needed new line, and will pay a steeper one if it fails to finish.

In New York City history and lore, the Second Avenue subway is the Loch Ness Monster crossed with the Abominable Snowman. Politicians, transit planners, and everyone in between have witnessed this East Side subway line face countless stops and starts, lost promises and changed plans. So even as construction crews work around the clock to build a portion of this long-aborning line, many native New Yorkers (my father among them) say they won't believe in its existence until they ride the train itself.

And yet, the Second Avenue line has become a beacon for New York's future and a symbol of the numerous challenges facing a global city that must, in light of massive costs and slow build-outs, expand its transit network to stay competitive. Ask anyone who has to ride the 4, 5, or 6 trains into Manhattan south of 60th Street during a morning rush hour, and the need for a Second Avenue line becomes clear. These trains aren't just crowded, they're packed to the gills. Very often, riders standing on a subway platform in Manhattan's Upper East Side—the most densely populated neighborhood in the country—have to let multiple trains go by before they can squeeze on board.

New York City prides itself on offering easy access to public transportation, but the East Side has significantly fewer stations now than it did in the 1940s, when the elevated rail still ran along Second and Third avenues. The annual Hub Bound Travel Report, issued by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, offers up a snapshot of the problem. More than 355,000 people per day enter Manhattan south of 60th Street along the Lexington Avenue IRT, the only subway line serving the East Side. On the West Side, 458,000 people enter that same area, but they're split among two local and two express lines.

Meanwhile, another 285,000 people enter the East Side by car while only 144,000 enter the West Side via auto. The differences are dramatic. 

The Second Avenue subway should help solve that distribution problem. It will lessen the burden on the Lexington Avenue line while shifting some drivers onto the subway and giving residents who live near the East River a more convenient transit option. It's a line that's been in the planning stages since the 1920s, and after three groundbreakings and project shutdowns over the decades, the Second Avenue subway has started to become a reality since the mid 2000s.

Through political horse-trading, New York State, with help from the federal government, agreed to sign off on a four-part plan to build the Second Avenue subway in sections. The first phase, currently under construction since 2007, will involve bringing the Q train north from 57th and Broadway to 96th and Second Avenue, with new stops at 86th and 72nd streets, and a connection to the F train at 63rd and Lexington. It will cost $4.45 billion and deliver three new stations to accompany roughly 2 miles of new tunnels. The other four phases—one north to 125th Street, and two south through Midtown to the tip of Manhattan—could bring the total cost to $20 billion and may take decades to see through to completion. Nothing beyond the current phase, which will be completed in late 2016, is funded. 

A rendering of the 72nd Street Station platform. (MTA)

The price is a problem. At $2.23 billion per mile, the Second Avenue subway is orders of magnitude more expensive than similar projects across the world. At various times, MTA officials have blamed the exceedingly high price tag on overstaffing due to onerous union requirements, the environmental review process, NIMBY opposition, the cost of working in New York, and the number of eligible contractors. The dollars present a major impediment to the future of the Second Avenue subway and to citywide transit expansion at large. Few politicians will fund projects that outlast their terms and cost so much money.

Meanwhile, New York faces a capacity problem. The city is expected to add one million residents over the next few decades, and river crossings—a key barrier separating where people live from where they work—are increasingly nearing capacity. Economically, the city can't support construction that costs more than $2 billion per mile and takes a decade to build out a mere two of them. And New Yorkers are facing a future where political inaction could prevent badly needed subway expansion projects from seeing the light of day.  

As a knee-jerk reaction to the issues, leaders have begun to think small. They propose ferries, with ridership that tops a few hundred per day, as opposed to a few hundred thousand per day for a full-length Second Avenue subway. They urge bus rapid transit as a lower-cost option, without discussing how lower costs inevitably lead to lower capacity. Only subway lines can sustain New York's projected growth, but New York can't sustain multi-billion-dollar subway lines. 

Lately, politicians have taken the easy way out. Instead of tackling the costs head on and leading uncomfortable discussions regarding entrenched labor and construction interests, they avoid the issue entirely. Buses are called subways with wheels, ferries become all-encompassing options, and even light rail—a technology that should, for other reasons, be introduced in New York—becomes an alluring but elusive dream.

Ultimately, though, nothing beats subways. Nothing else can help the East Side shift from cars to transit while alleviating the crush of people along the Lexington Avenue line. Nothing else can move people across natural barriers separating Manhattan's Central Business District from the rest of the city faster. And right now, nothing else in New York City costs more. 

Thinking big—building more than 750 miles of track in five boroughs—made this city great, and to keep it great, New Yorkers will have to remember how to think big. That might mean thinking creatively when it comes to financing, including more aggressive tax-increment financing schemes, a greater funding commitment from the City of New York, and an increased focus on reducing operational expenses. The costs must come down from their lofty perch, and with the need to build future phases of the Second Avenue subway staring us in the face, the time to start thinking creatively is now.

This article is part of 'The Future of Transportation,' a CityLab series made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

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