Will the Second Avenue Subway be Cancelled Once Again?

The Second Avenue Subway has been planned and replanned in New York City at least four times. Each time, the city’s subway planners announced that they would be able to commence construction, but ultimately were forced to delay and then cancel the project because of a lack of money and economic recessions. In the 1970s, the Transit Authority built a number of track sections for the line, tunnelling from 99th to 105th streets and from 110th to 119th streets. But then the city came incredibly close to declaring bankruptcy, President Gerald Ford metaphorically told the city to “Drop Dead,” and the Municipal Assistance Corporation, taking control of the city’s budget and run by the banks, cut off all spending on non-essential services, and some essential ones too (like funding for hospitals and police). Suffice it to say construction stopped.

But expanding subway ridership in the 1990s and 2000s, which now makes subway ridership the highest it’s been since WWII, forced the city to once again consider a second line on the East Side of Manhattan. The Lexington Avenue Line (the 4, 5, and 6 green lines for you novices) is hopelessly overcrowded, with far more ridership than the entire Washington, D.C. Metro system. And much of the eastern edges of the island are simply not well served considering their extreme densities. So the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) began construction in 2007 on the new line, the first phase of which will run as an extension of the Broadway Q Line from 63rd to 96th street, with intermediary stations at 72nd and 86th streets. This tiny 1.7-mile line, to open in 2015, will carry 200,000 people a day – more than just about any rapid transit line in the U.S. outside of New York.

Here’s the important point: though 1.7 miles is nothing for a transportation project, there’s enough work to be done in the next seven years that any significant delay in funding will not only push the project back (this has already happened; the line was supposed to be finished in 2012 originally), but it will eventually force the project to go into hibernation; in other words, it will be cancelled. The other sections of the line, which is supposed to extend up to 125th street and down to Whitehall street in lower Manhattan, might as well be cancelled today.

I don’t want to start digging the grave for the line yet because it has received billions of dollars of funding from the U.S. FTA and will be the recipient of $500 million from a New York State transportation bond that one approval from voters back in 2005. After all, earlier this year, the CEO of the MTA, Lee Sander, announced that the MTA would be pursuing a massive expansion – including new extensions in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, as well as a Triboro line that would avoid Manhattan altogether. Shouldn’t the Second Avenue Subway just be the beginning of great new services for the city?

If only the answer could be yes. But the MTA’s funding is provided by three sources: fares, a .375% sales tax, and a real estate transfer tax (thanks Transit Blogger). Fare revenue is unlikely to go down because ridership seems to be increasing or at least staying steady, according to Second Avenue Sagas – New Yorkers seem positively giddy about their subway system, even during an economic crisis. But the failure of the economy in the last month – especially its financial sector – is going to hurt New York more than any other city (other than perhaps Charlotte). The real estate market, which has remade New York in past decade, is going way down, and the revenues dedicated to the MTA will follow. The state expects housing prices to decline every month for the next 15. Sales tax revenues will likely follow the same path, considering the growing shortage of bonus-laden investment bankers.

The MTA is now revising its budget estimates and envisioning not a $900 million deficit, but something three or four times larger instead. Times are tough for the agency, and unless suddenly there’s a huge infusion of cash from some foreign investor, service is going to have to be cut. But service can’t be cut, because ridership is at record levels. Trains are already crowded on almost every line in the system. So what can the agency do? I suggest to you that there may be no choice but to cut the Second Avenue Subway from the budget. There will be no massive expansion during a period of economic downfall.

The irony of this situation – one that is being duplicated in cities across the country – escapes no one. We have high transit ridership, and yet we can’t fund the services. And decreased transit services – espcially in dependent cities like New York – are likely to only make the economy worse off. Putting the city’s eight million inhabitants in a bind everytime they want to get around is going to discourage them from getting around. An economic crisis that is already tearing the city apart will be extended.

Of course, there are alternatives; the MTA could be provided more money from the city, state, or federal governments. The city can’t give away anything, though: though Mayor Michael Bloomberg may be exaggerating current problems, there’s little doubt that future budgets will see massive, multi-billion-dollar deficits. Meanwhile, the state’s projected budget deficit for the next three and a half years is now projected at an astonishing $47 billion. The idea that the state of New York would give more, not less money to the MTA considering this problem is laughable. So what is the MTA to do?

New York Governor David Paterson, along with New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, are doing the right thing in pleading their case to Washington. New York is certainly not alone in facing budget problems – California, it might be argued, is worse off. There is absolutely no excuse for the federal government to give away $700 billion to failing financial companies just as states and cities across the country face cuts that will doom the provision of absolutely necessary services like transportation. The U.S. Government has far greater capacity to take on debts than states or cities do.

As I argued a few posts ago, the federal government has a very important role to play in funding the renovation and expansion of existing transit systems. If financial services corporations can expect a massive bailout, transit agencies, which, unlike those corporations, haven’t done anything wrong or been motivated by profit, certainly should expect the same. It’s time for a change in priorities in Washington. If not, we can expect, once again, that the Second Avenue Subway will be a figment of our imaginations.

2 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Nathanael Nerode

    Cutting the SAS would be completely insane.

    Honestly, before they do that they should wipe out half the bus service — starting with all buses in lower and Midtown Manhattan (you can walk crosstown and take the subway north-south). That would save a large amount in operating costs *and* in capital costs (bus replacement). It would be a radical and unfortunate measure, but would be a much better move than cancelling the SAS (which stands to eliminate massive amounts of Third and Second Avenue bus operating costs yearly, among other things).

  • Woody

    With every passing day the SAS gets closer to a point of no return, where the “sunk” costs already in the ground, so to speak, are greater than the costs of finishing the work — or the costs of stopping! It may be closer to that point than we think. I’m holding my breath.

    That big hole up near 96th St. is almost ready to receive the tunnel boring machine that will start chewing through the rock heading south to 63rd St. I’m sure the contract on that costly boring machine is spent money, use it or lose it. What’s left to do is to haul away the excavated rock.

    So I hope the SAS will go forward. I wonder if they could postpone a couple of the stations, and go with only the one at 86th St. Given that the going rate for a station, as revealed re the one proposed for 42nd and 11th Ave, is almost half a billion bucks, they seem expendable, or at least postponable.

    Cutting back to only one station at 86th would make that a really crowded station. But it would still give much relief to the heavily populated far eastern reaches of the Upper East Side.

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