Second Avenue Subway: Rethink 1

125 Street Second Avenue Subway

The Second Avenue Subway is New York City’s biggest mass transit project, and its second biggest infrastructure project, just a little less expensive than the massive Water Tunnel Number 3, which has been under construction since 1970 and will not be completed until 2020. The subway has a long history, dating back for almost a century, since the IND Second Subway Plan of 1929. NYCSubway.org has an excellent overview of the plan and its components, as well as a description of what parts of the project were begun in the 1970s. So we’re not going to repeat what’s already been written here; instead, in two posts, today and tomorrow, we’ll be discussing the current plan for the subway and what changes should be made to make it a more efficient and popular line.

The current plan for the line argues that it be constructed in four phases, as follows:

  1. Phase I: An extension of the Broadway Q from 63rd Street to 96th Street, with new stations at 72nd, 86th, and 96th Street; the Q would continue to be a Broadway Express train below the 72nd Street Station (this is currently under construction and expected to be completed in 2015);
  2. Phase II: An extension of the Q line to 125th Street, with new stations at 106th, 116th, and 125th Street (connection to 4, 5, 6, and Metro-North); this phase would include tracks that would allow the line to continue along 125th Street and/or into the Bronx;
  3. Phase III: An extension of the Second Avenue line down to Houston Street, with new stations at 55th (connection to E, V F, and 6), 42nd (connection to 4, 5, 6, 7, S, and Metro-North), 34th, 23rd, 14th (connection to L), and Houston Streets (connection to F); the opening of Phase III would mean the creation of a new T line that would travel the full length of Second Avenue and along with the Q in the Upper East Side (this would also allow for a future U line running from Queens in the 63rd Street tunnel, down Second Avenue);
  4. Phase IV: An extension of the T line downtown, with new stations at Grand St (connection to D and B), Chatham Sq, South Street Seaport, and Hanover Square.

There are excellent reasons to begin with what is called Phase I because it takes advantage of an easy extension of the Q line, giving people on the Upper East Side of Manhattan a direct route to the Times Square business district, as well as the core of the 34th Street retail corridor. It also relieves the busiest sections of the overcrowded Lexington Avenue lines by providing a second route downtown. The same basic argument could be made for Phase II, since it too would be an extension of the Q, providing West Side access and relief to currently overcrowded stations.

As we’ve discussed, in today’s economic conditions, the completion of even the portion of the line under construction today is in doubt; the MTA simply does not have enough money. But major federal and state grants may come in the form of stimulus packages, and New York City’s real estate market will likely rebound in the near-enough future and provide adequate financing to continue the subway’s expansion. So what should follow Phase II? Do the MTA’s current plans for a longer Second Avenue Subway make sense?

We would like to posit here that a more worthwhile use of limited funds could be made in extending the new line west down 125th Street, rather than further downtown. The idea of a 125th Street line is implicit in the design of Phase II, which will include track sections designed specifically so that they can be extended west (there will also be a turn off for the Bronx). And 125th Street is the focus of most transit planners’ ideas about what streets deserve crosstown subway services. (Regional Plan Association’s recent Tomorrow’s Transit report (PDF) includes the idea, for instance.)

But we advance this idea specifically: Phase III of the Second Avenue Subway should be 125th Street, not the downtown line.

Why is it less important for people below 63rd Street to get a new subway line than for those above? Any line serving the East Side of Manhattan would play an important role in relieving stress on the Lexington Avenue lines. The fundamental difference is that the line serving the Upper East Side in Phases I and II will operate as a Broadway Q train and therefore provide access to the West Side business district, a service not currently provided directly for East Siders. This would reduce passenger loads on the Times Square-Grand Central Shuttle as well as decrease the number of people transferring from the Lexington Avenue 6 to the E and F at 53rd Street, the most crushed of all subway stations.

On the other hand, the T line below 63rd Street would parallel the Lexington Avenue lines and therefore not provide a new service, since it would simply allow a slightly shorter walk to the subway for those who live on the far East Side. And because the Second Avenue Subway’s route in Lower Manhattan is peripheral, further away from the core business district, the Lexington Avenue lines will continue to provide superior access to jobs for those who have the option to choose between the two lines.

On the other hand, a 125th Street route would provide superior connectivity throughout the subway system and dramatically improve service between the East and West Sides. The image above provides descriptions of which areas of the city would benefit directly from a 125th Street expansion (download the PDF here). The principal advantage of the system is that it would allow riders to go crosstown without going downtown. Who benefits? Riders in Harlem, Upper Manhattan, and the Bronx on the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, A, B, C, and D lines north of 110th Street. Riders on the 6th (B and D), 7th (1, 2, and 3), and 8th (A and C) Avenue Lines are currently shuttled to the West Side – even if their jobs are located on the East Side – and would for the first time get the chance to ride to the Upper East Side without going downtown, and also get the chance to transfer to the Lexington Avenue lines without using the overcrowded midtown crosstown routes. Riders on the Lexington Avenue (4, 5, and 6) lines in the Bronx would be able to transfer to West Side trains, again, without going downtown. Finally, a 125th Street line would mean far easier movement between the Upper East Side and Upper West Side, currently a difficult proposition not helped by the extremely slow bus service across Central Park.

So a 125th Street extension would provide dramatically enhanced subway mobility for the large number of inhabitants of Upper Manhattan, Harlem, and the Bronx; this cannot be said for people to be served under the currently planned Phases III and IV. Therefore, the 125th Street, again acting as an extension of the Broadway Q train, should be prioritized.

All this is not to ignore the importance of the rest of the Second Avenue Subway; in no way should the section south of 63rd Street be cancelled, especially if a connection from Queens is provided (on the future U train). It would dramatically decrease crowding in the southern Manhattan sections of the Lexington Avenue lines and increase the number of trains that could be sent in from Queens. But the MTA should seriously consider whether or not these improvements are worth more than the significant advances made possible with a line under 125th Street.

12 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • herenthere

    Correction: Phase III at 53 St will provide transfers to the 6 (51 St),E, and V lines (53/Lexington), not F. Plus, the 53 St station is not the most crushed of all stations, in my opinion. Try the Main St 7 during AM rush hour.

  • herenthere

    Also, I think the 125th St. Fault may play a role in not building a subway tunnel running along it…
    but otherwise interesting thoughts!

  • thetransportpolitic

    The Harlem Valley shouldn’t make a difference – after all, the 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, A, B, C, and D lines all manage to get under it, so a 125th Street line would simply have to go under those other lines, which is perfectly feasible, though of course quite expensive…

  • Mr. Transit

    During the planning phase, the Central Harlem community was rather negative on a westward extension down 125th Street which would at least reach the No. 2/3 trains at Lenox Ave.

  • mark smith

    Extending the proposed second avenue T line west across 125th street is a good idea, and clearly is in the (very) long-range MTA plans. Interestingly, track configurtions on the westside ABCD lines allow for a connection with this proposed 125th street extension that would make it much easier to use, and much less expensive, than building new stations at Broadway and St. Nicholas, as proposed in your diagram here.

    The so-called ‘Homeball Alley” section of the ABCD lines north of 125th street actually was built for six tracks between 125th and 145th, although only four tracks are currently used. This means that the T (125th st extension) could turn north and run along with the ABCD lines with very little additional construction cost. (A flyover for the B and T to cross north of 135th street might be all the new construction that is necessary.)

    This T train would skip 135th street, use the C platform at 145th street, and continue north along the C line to a terminus at 168th Street, where a connection with the “1” train would exist.

    This routing would provide easy connections from the 1, A-B-C-D lines, and allow the T trains to easily lay up at the yards north of 168th. Since very little new trackage would be required, it would be fairly inexpensive.

    The only major new contruction would involve the westward portion of the tunnel from the currently projected T terminus at 125-Park Ave to St. Nicholas Ave. Only one new station would be required, at Malcolm X Blvd, providing a connection with the 2-3 trains.

  • GunHillTrain

    The Metro-North line shown in the East Bronx is actually the Amtrak Northeast Corridor. (It may have local commuter service in future.) Also, it is located north of the #6 subway line, not south of it.

    The line doesn’t connect with the Harlem line to 125th Street; it crosses the Hell Gate Bridge and leads into Penn Station.

  • A Commuter

    I might be a bit late on the pick up here, but I fail to see the reason why 2 line riders from the Bronx couldn’t transfer at 149th/Grand Concourse to get to the East Side, or why B/D riders couldn’t transfer at 161st Street for the Lexington Ave. Line. Both of these options offer a less circuitous route than what would be offered by this extension.

  • Woody

    A Commuter — Riders do now transfer at 149th/Grand Concourse and at 161st, of course. They help make the Lexington line so terribly crowded.

    The Second Avenue Subway will allow a lot of white people from the Upper East Side to take less crowded trains. But the black and brown people still using the Lexington line will still ride crowded trains.

    Back when I voted in favor of a bond issue to build the SAS (in the late 60s iirc), the plan was to push it under the Harlem River into the Bronx. By connecting to the 2, 5, and 6 far upstream, it was going to divert a lot of riders before they even got to the South Bronx stations.

    When the currently-under-construction version was approved a few years ago, the City Council decided to go for the truncated all-Manhattan line.

    With only two tracks, the SAS would be very limited in its capacity if it ever did reach the Bronx, and so maybe not worth it. And I doubt if they’d link to the IRT lines the way the maps showed back in the ’60s. This SAS, Phase I, is being planned for trains to run on BMT and IND tracks in Midtown, and I’m told that the IRT lines are incompatible.

  • Even in the 1960s, it was planned to run on BMT and IND tracks, since they provide greater capacity than IRT tracks. The link plan was to have SAS take over the elevated portion of the 6, which was constructed to BMT/IND specs.

    Also, today black and brown people in the Bronx get to sit on the Lexington trains. A friend who lives in Coop City tells me that the downtown 6 only becomes standing room only at 125th. It’s the white Upper East Siders who have to stand on trains with, gasp, 75% as many riders as they have the capacity for.

  • akiva

    I say stick with building a full length sas, with 4 tracks. a 2 track line will eventually get crowded like lex ave. The whole reason the sas is being bulit is to relieve overcrowding on the lex lines

  • Matthew

    I support the idea of building a crosstown subway at 125th st, and I would actually recommend extending the scope of the project slightly. On the west side of 125th, I would route the subway line under Tiemann Pl, and under Riverside Park to connect it the Amtrak line on the west side of Manhattan, to also create a new west side subway line. The crosstown 125th street line could become both an extension of the second ave subway on the east side, but also the first phase of an airport express which would run from Penn station, up to 125th, and then across on the 125th St line, hitting local stops, before a second phase would extended it under the river toward Queens where it would run under 21st St in Queens to the airport. Even as a half built airport express with just the Manhattan portion, the line would be successfully as it would provide a quick trip from Penn station to all of the subway and rail lines that bisect 125th st, and it would provide a quick crosstown trip to the eastern side of Manhattan where passengers could transfer to the M60 after bypassing the slowest section of the m60 bus route while also reducing congestion on the street from bus lines, as many of the passengers would be able to switch to the crosstown subway. Additionally, the extension of the line into northern Queens would serve a second purpose of better connecting Queens to the Bronx creating a northern bypass between all of the lines serving the Bronx and connecting them to Queens above central park.

  • Lou Argote

    IND/BMT type cars are too wide (and long) to be linked to the smaller IRT system. However, the IND/BMT proposed 2nd Ave. line could be linked to the elevated portions of the IRT with minor adjustments, similar to the joint subway/elevated line links of the BMT on the old Myrtle Ave. line. The old wooden BMT elevated cars shared IRT width dimensions; OR outfit the 2nd Ave.
    line with some type of hybrid rolling stock which may be compatible even in IRT tunnels. A modified version or the old “Multis” used on the BMT years ago comes to mind.

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