Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
A visual history of an infamously troubled project.
The cost: extraordinary. The length: underwhelming. The wait: longer than commercial radio has been around. But after nearly a century’s worth of false starts and scrapped plans, New York City’s Second Avenue Subway leaves the station January 1, 2017.
The fabled Q-train extension starts at the southern tip of Central Park, winds east to an upgraded station at Lexington Ave and 63rd, and travels north up Second Avenue to three all-new stops at 72nd, 86th and 96th Streets. The bill adds up to $4.5 billion. Future phases of construction (none of which are funded) are supposed to stretch the Second Avenue tunnel further north and south. The second segment is supposed to add another couple miles of stops up to 125th street for a whopping $6 billion. It’s officially the costliest subway project in the world.
It’s also a contender for most fabled. The Second Avenue Subway’s lack of existence is part of New York City lore; like the specters of the Lower Manhattan Expressway and the old Penn Station, it haunts the city with what could have been. Historic maps from the New York Transit Museum show how transportation planners dreamed, schemed, and dreamed again through countless setbacks and financial crises.
Plans on track
The seeds of the Second Avenue were first planted in 1920. New York City’s rapid transit lines were already hauling some 1.3 billion riders per year—twice as many than they had a decade prior (and not really so far from the 1.7 billion subways carry today). Elevated, surface, and underground lines were all approaching their carrying limits. Engineers saw a clear need for expanding capacity on the Upper East Side, which was served by two elevated lines with very poor service, and one underground tube with too many bodies: “The Fourth Avenue-Lexington Avenue subway is already overcrowded,” the New York Times wrote in 1920. “The neighborhood around the Grand Central Terminal is rapidly building up, [and] large increases in hotel facilities are being planned. Within a short time the existing subway will be unable to meet the transit requirements of the east side of Manhattan.”
The transit construction commissioner’s 1920 blueprint for a “Proposed Comprehensive Rapid Transit System” (above) called for 830 miles of additional track radiating from Manhattan towards every borough, including a north-south route along Third Avenue on the east side (see detail below). That imagined line starts roughly in mid-town, runs up to the Bronx, and curves around into Queens. On its south end, that east side subway starts roughly in the same spot as the soon-to-open line. “Second Avenue had not been conceptualized as one continuous line at that point—it took on several different forms before becoming the route that we now know it to be,” says Rebecca Haggerty, the research archivist at the New York Transit Museum.
Looking carefully at this map, you can also see that there are existing tracks along Second Ave. This would be the widely despised “elevated,” which ran trains overhead on a massive steel viaduct. Within a couple of years, engineers revised the proposed rapid transit expansions shown here, essentially nudging the imagined Third Avenue subway over to Second—more or less directly beneath where the elevated stood (foreshadowing its eventual destruction). By 1929, cost estimates for further-tweaked plans were just under $90 million (a little more than $1 billion in today’s dollars), and tunnel boring did begin in the early 1930s. But as the country’s economic climate darkened, so did East Siders’s hopes for subway-car relief. The Eighth Avenue subway managed to open, but subterranean ambitions for Second were dialed back repeatedly and finally shelved.
It wasn’t until 1942, after the Second Avenue “el” was torn down, that the subway’s embers were blown again to flame. At first, new proposals essentially mimicked earlier outlines. Then they got ambitious: In the map above, dated 1947, the trunk of a lengthier Second Avenue Subway runs from the East Village (see detail) to the Bronx, with branches that stretch over the East River into both Queens and the Far Rockaways—the coastal edge of Brooklyn. The latest cost: $559,200,000 (close to $6 billion today). Ground was broken, and the Third Avenue elevated—the last remaining transit connection on the East Side, other than the Lexington Avenue subway—was demolished in 1956.
But these years were not kind to New York City’s coffers: the Board of Transportation saw its first deficits in the 1940s and ‘50s, thanks to belt-tightening through two wars, a shrunken workforce, and New Yorkers’ increasing reliance on the personal automobile. Despite an effort by leaders to raise the municipal debt ceiling, the project seemed permanently doomed. "It is highly improbable that the Second Avenue subway will ever materialize," declared the New York Times in 1957.
The MTA groups, and regroups
The next glimmer of hope came with the birth of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority through the Urban Mass Transit Act of 1964, which guaranteed federal dollars for public transportation. In 1968, as part of a “sweeping” $2.9 billion (or about $20 billion adjusted for inflation) citywide transit expansion plan, the MTA gave top priority to the Second Avenue project to relieve “enormous congestion” on the Lexington Avenue line. In a blueprint from that year, plans show the subway line originating much further south than previous iterations—all the way down to Broad Street—and up to Bronx, but not before connecting to the proposed 63rd Street Tunnel (completed in phases in 1972 and 1989). To finance the estimated $220 million ($1.5 billion today) that the Second Avenue project required, the MTA was granted $25 million by the feds, and the city raised tens of millions more in a series of successful bond measures. Residents and engineers fought bitterly over the line’s southern-most endpoint; “[I]ndefinite delay is threatened by a squabble over the exact route,” wrote the Times in 1968. “[This] is intolerable… there will be 120,000 more jobs in the downtown area three years from now… and the present subways are already loaded to capacity and beyond. This city must get on with its job.”
It actually did—for a hot second. “We know that whatever is said about this project in the years to come, certainly no one can say that the city acted rashly or without due deliberation,” Mayor John Lindsay said at a 1972 groundbreaking ceremony at 103rd Street and Second Avenue. William Ronan, chairman of the MTA, “hailed the start of construction as ‘a day of deliverance for the strap-hanger.’” But by that point, the costs had essentially quadrupled, and the project had no completion date on the books. Hit hard by a national economic decline, New York City fell into a dark financial crisis. The subway system descended into crime and disrepair, and ridership plummeted to its lowest levels since the Second Avenue project was first conceived.
Besieged by delays, construction problems, and budget wrangling, the project appeared doomed by 1975, even as work proceeded in fits and starts. “In what could be a rush to oblivion, heavy machinery and blasting teams are hard at work in the immense caverns beneath the temporary wooden roadway on the upper part of the avenue,” wrote the Times. ”One stretch, between 99th and 105th Streets, is nearly finished, needing only track and trains to complete the illusion of a functioning subway.” But they would sit vacant for another 40 years—though not for lack of ideas. Writes a New York City transportation trade magazine:
During the 1980s the MTA entertained proposals to rent out the completed sections for various uses: prisons, discos, wine cellars, bowling alleys. City Council member Henry Stern suggested car racetracks, driving ranges, parking lots, and—his favorite—mushroom farms. In the end, the sections remained empty.
Back to the future
Transportation planners fired up their guns once last time in the late 1990s. A spate of transit studies found (shocker) a need for relief for east side commuters, and although officials “still differ[ed] about whether its huge costs can be justified,” there was enough of a consensus to move Second Avenue forward. Engineering plans and environmental reviews were completed in the mid-2000s, and in 2007 ground broke on the three-stop segment that opens on Sunday, with an inaugural New Year’s Eve ride by Governor Andrew Cuomo. It took ten years to build, and between delays and special contracts, costs skyrocketed to unseen heights.
Will the line ever reach its fully imagined potential, or even half of it? Phase one will help unclog some of the sweatiest stretches of Lexington Avenue. But where, and when, the city will find the $59,000 per projected weekday rider—the estimated cost of the second phase—is hard to fathom. Perhaps the MTA will find a way to bring costs down to earth. Perhaps the Manhattanite entering the Oval Office will smile upon Second Avenue. With this train, possibility is always around the corner.