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:
- 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);
- 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;
- 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);
- 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.