We are designing the world’s most expensive subway and it won’t help most New Yorkers. Here’s how we can change that.
On December 31, 2016 the first phase of the long awaited 2nd Ave Subway opened from 63rd St/Lexington Av to 96th St/2nd Av. Jaded New Yorkers, exhausted by nearly a decade of construction work, made their way down through the new stations to marvel at the accomplishment. The Great White Whale of New York transit lore had finally been bested and we were lost in the moment, celebrating the fact that the city had fulfilled a promise nearly 90 years old. But after the euphoria died down and commuters began to adjust to the new line the inevitable question of “what’s next” came up.
Planning for Phase 2, from 96th St/2nd Av to 125th St/Lexington Av has begun but construction isn’t planned to start until after 2019 because funding was cut by Governor Andrew Cuomo from the 2015-2019 budget. Currently engineering work is being done along with utility relocation for Phase 2. Phase 2 also will reuse the original tunnels built in the 1970s from 96th St north to 120th St. The 1970s plan, oddly, did not include a station at 116th St but instead had space for a third track for layups and maintenance; this space is now being planned for an infill station at 116th St. North of 120th St the line will make a broad curve west under 125th St (supposedly with provisions for an extension north to the Bronx) and will terminate at a station several stories below the existing 125th St Station on the Lexington Av Line and an exit connecting to the elevated Metro-North station at Park Ave. Even with the reuse of the existing tunnels the current price tag is around $6 billion which has given many pause since Phase 1, which did included new tunnels, clocked in at $4.5 billion. Should Phase 2 actually cost what it is projected it would be the most expensive subway line in the world out shining the current champion, Phase 1 of 2nd Av.
While cost is on everyone’s mind there is at least momentum to get Phase 2 built. The same cannot be said for Phases 3 and 4. What may come as a shock to riders is that the MTA does not actually see the last two phases as a priority. Their mentality is that the crowding on the Lexington Av Line is worst along the Upper East Side and that south of 63rd St there are more options for riders and less need for a new trunk line. The MTA cannot be totally faulted for this mentality, after all they are primarily in the business of running trains, not urban planning, and their primary concern is dealing with existing congestion so trains run smoother and safer. When the New York City Transit Authority ran the subways before 1968 it was part of the city and beholden to the Mayor which meant there was more pressure to expand to serve new areas. When the MTA was created in 1968 it was a state agency so their onus for city planning was reduced. Since then the MTA has been focused more on maintaining the crumbling system rather than expanding it.
Phase 1 of 2nd Av was designed so that it could directly connect to the existing system, rather than an entire separate line, and show the city that it could actually be built. This was a political decision and ultimately a wise one as it has had a direct positive impact on subway crowding already. But going forward it is becoming increasingly clear that the division between city and state needs is now starting to have long term consequences when it comes to 2nd Av and the future of transit in NYC.
The underlying fault of the current iteration of the 2nd Ave Subway is that it’s being designed as a single entity when every other line in the system, and the original concept for the 2nd Ave Subway, were all designed as parts of a larger network. The NYC Subway works differently than most other subway around the world with a trunk/branch system. The trunk/branch system is not unique to NYC but what is unique is that NYC has multiple trunks that interface with one another via reverse branching. When originally planned in the first half of the 20th Century the 2nd Ave Subway was part of the IND system, the A/B/C/D/E/F/G lines built by the city. When the city took over the other two private companies in 1940 (the IRT and BMT) and merged all three there was an opportunity to connect the trunk lines in new ways. In 1967 the Chrystie St Connection was the largest of these changes and originally was designed as the southern end of the 2nd Ave Subway. In theory a rider coming from Brooklyn could enter the subway and take one of three trains which would have run up Broadway, 6th Av, or 2nd Av.
As costs rose and construction of new subways sputtered out the scope of 2nd Av was reduced further and further. In the 1970s when shovels started turning earth the concept was whittled down to a two track line with fewer stations for faster service. There would be a transfer at Grand St so riders coming from Brooklyn could reach 2nd Av and a branch to Queens via the new 63rd St Tunnel planned as a super express line out to Forest Hills. In this concept at least the needs of riders coming from Brooklyn and Queens were addressed. In 1999 the Environmental Impact Statement for the current concept of 2nd Av was produced and updated in 2004. This lost the line to Queens since the super express line had been scrapped long ago (though the track connection would be built to the 63rd St Tunnel) and altered the Grand St transfer from a cross platform transfer to adding a new platform two levels below the existing station; the reasoning being that building a cross platform transfer would disrupt the neighborhood too greatly due to cut-and-cover construction. In its current form transfers from Brooklyn will require two sets of stairs and there will be no line to Queens, the borough in greatest need of congestion relief. Phase 4 plans on extending the line south to Hanover Sq with tracks turned towards Brooklyn should a new tunnel be proposed. But due to the location of Phase 4 the new line won’t allow for transfers to any downtown stations with access to Brooklyn. What this means in reality is that we plan on building the most expensive subway in the world that will help far fewer New Yorkers than it possibly could all because a state agency prioritizes a narrow definition of service over the needs of the total system.
It is probably, then, a blessing in disguise that Phase 1 and 2 have cost so much and taken so long. The current plan for 2nd Av was finalized in 2004 (with adjustments as construction costs rose) with Phase 1 opening 12 years later. With everything learned from Phase 1 I’m optimistic that Phase 2 could be done in half the time. But that would mean the first half of the subway took close to 20 years to build. Today subway delays and crowding is at an all-time high and ridership is the highest it has even been. The projections from the EIS, currently 13 years old, need to be discarded. Phase 1 and 2 lack express tracks due to the limitations of the tunnels built in the 1970s. This kind of poor forethought needs to be avoided for Phase 3/4 which by the time they might reasonably be started will need to be totally rethought.
The current plans for Phase 3 are as such: at 55th St an island platform station, north of which two sets of tracks split with one continuing to 72nd St and the other curving east to connect to the 63rd St Tunnel; south of 55th St the line is two tracks with island platform stations at 42nd St, 34th St, 23rd St, 14th St, and E Houston St; between 9th St and 20th St is planned for an additional two non-revenue tracks outside the revenue tracks for storage. Phase 4 continues the two track line south of Houston St, curving around and below the existing Chrystie St tunnels with a new platform two levels below the existing Grand St station; curving west to Chatham Sq (an existing tunnel built in the 1970s will not be used for tracks because of the new depth planned but instead be used to ancillary utilities), and then continuing south to Hanover Sq with an intermediate station at Fulton St/Seaport. Plans for a bi-level terminal at Hanover Sq were scaled back to a single island platform and tail tracks pointing towards Brooklyn.
It is obvious that this is the leanest plan possible and allows for limited connectivity with the existing network. The bare bones plan wastes the potential that a new trunk line provides. But this plan deals with the reality that building through midtown Manhattan will be far more complex than along the UES where much less existing underground infrastructure exists. The costs for Phase 3/4 will be huge due to the complexity of the project but it is far worse to design something ineffective because it will be cheaper than to make a greater investment that will return more dividends to the city in the long run.
Subway planners need not look far for a better alternative. In 1940 the IND 6th Av Line opened to the public as one of the most complex subway projects ever undertaken in NYC and the last new major trunk line. Built to replace the 6th Ave El, which kept running above as construction took place, the subway had to be built around three existing lines including the Hudson & Manhattan Tubes (today the PATH) which were already running below 6th Av. Construction took 5 years and cost $59,500,000 in 1940, $1,034,783,763 in today’s dollars (based on conversion from https://westegg.com/inflation/). Because of the existing H&M tubes the express tracks were only built from 53rd St south to 34th St and at W 4th St Station. The 6th Av Line was designed to be integrated into the IND system with connections to the existing 8th Av, Queens Blvd, Crosstown, and Fulton St Lines. Provisions were built into the line for future integration with the 2nd Av Line as well (which was built as part of the 63rd St Tunnel and is in use today by the F and Q trains). In the 1960s as part of the Chrystie St Connection the express tracks were built between 34th St and W 4th St so that express trains could connect to the Manhattan Bridge. It was the foresight of subway planners that future connections would be needed when ridership increased and money became available. It is with this as a guide that present subway planners need to rework the future of the 2nd Av Subway so it can make a larger impact on the subway network as a whole.
What is needed is to design Phase 3 to be as lean as possible but also allow for future expansion for the addition of express tracks and provisions for a new tunnel to Queens should the need arise. The most important section of 2nd Av that needs to be redesigned is in Midtown East, stations at 55th and 42nd Streets. 55th St is a bit of a misnomer since it will most likely have an entrance at 57th St but the reason for locating the station further south than, say, 59th St is due to the need for the junction with the 63rd St Tunnel. The new 55th St Station will feature two island platforms and four tracks, something planned in the 1970s proposal but dropped in the 2004 EIS. North of the station, between 57th and 61st streets will be a six track cavern: the outer most tracks will continue north and connect to the existing 2nd Av Subway with bellmouth provisions for future express tracks to the Bronx, the middle tracks will drop down to connect with the 63rd St Tunnel and the innermost tracks will be used for layups and storage and can also be connected to the existing 2nd Av tunnels to the north. The reason for the layup tracks is so that any future service coming in from Brooklyn can terminate in midtown if there is no extra capacity north or to Queens. South of the station will be three double crossover switches to enable trains from Queens to terminate at 55th St if need be.
42nd St Station will also feature two island platforms and four tracks but just south of the station the outer tracks merge with the inner tracks with provisions for future express tracks. Heading south 34th and 23rd St Stations will remain as island platforms, two track stations; when express tracks are built these will be bypassed. 14th St Station will remain the same as well but the additional layup tracks planned between 9th street and 20th street will be shifted south. The Houston St Station will be built with two island platforms but only two inner tracks; the outer trackways will be sealed off and the layup tracks planned at 14th street will be moved south between 3rd street and 14th streets.
Originally there was the option to connect 2nd Av to the Centre St Subway at Bowery Station but the proximity of the station to where the 2nd Av tunnels would be built would mean that the station couldn’t be used (and most likely would have to be demolished) and that the existing curves in the tunnel would be so tight that it would force 2nd Av trains to slow down considerably. The simplest solution would then be to rework the existing tunnels built for the Chrystie St Connection. The current express tracks (used by the B/D trains to reach the Manhattan Bridge) would be severed from 6th Av and connected directly to 2nd Av. This would only require digging under the northern section of Sara Roosevelt Park. 2nd Av trains would take over from the B/D with the planned T train taking over the D via 4th Av-West End to Coney Island and a second 2nd Av train, what I’ve labeled the H train in my map, using the 63rd St Tunnel to Queens, taking over the B to Brighton Beach. The express provisions would allow for a future expansion south of Grand St Station which would be more cost effective if it was to swing west under Park Row and then connect to the Nassau St Subway just south of Chambers St Station to allow for trains to use Nassau St and the Montague Tunnel to reach Brooklyn. Because of the way the provisions are designed the 2nd Av Subway would be flipped from the normal layout of trunk lines with express tracks on the outside and local tracks on the inside.
This frees up capacity on 6th Av to be used to serve Williamsburg; the express tracks at 2nd Av Station were built for a future tunnel to Williamsburg but the service could be reimagined for cheaper. As ridership in north Brooklyn continues to rise and alternatives to the L train are few, rerouting the BMT Jamaica Line up 6th Av would be a boon for the area. The local tracks (used by the M train to connect with the Williamsburg Bridge) would be readjusted to connect to the express tracks of 6th Av east of Broadway-Lafayette St Station. Essex St Station would be altered so that the westbound platform and track is swapped allowing access to the center track (see diagram); this would allow for a new shuttle service to run off hours between Broad St and Essex St. B/D trains could now operate over the Williamsburg Bridge replacing the J/M/Z service; D trains to Broadway Junction and B trains to Metropolitan Av. This would be a separate project in and of itself in that it would require expanding the Broadway El stations for longer cars as well as rebuilding the Myrtle-Broadway interlocking to allow for more service; all of this would be a far cheaper alternative for expanding service to Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant than building a new subway. Also freed up is the capacity along the 6th Av local, now used by the M train, which can now be used for express service along the Culver Line (labeled the V train in my map).
Service past Broadway Junction would need to be altered as well due to the curves at Crescent St and would involve a third project to add capacity along the IND Fulton St Subway. The Fulton Line runs at 50% capacity, max, because the four tracks are truncated into two to allow trains to navigate the Cranberry St Tubes. The two local tracks continue on to the decommissioned Court St Station (home of the NY Transit Museum) and plans from the 1930s called for using these tracks to connect to the 2nd Av Subway. Given current ridership levels the existing Montague Tunnel (used by the R in the day and N at night) runs well under capacity. If a connection between the two was built, in the same fashion as the 11th St Connection in Long Island City between the BMT 60th St Tunnel and the IND Queens Blvd Line, then the extra capacity on both lines could be taken advantage of. W trains, which now terminate at Whitehall St due to the lack of demand from south Brooklyn, could then be extended east through Fulton St. C trains could then run a flexible service running express at rush hour and local at other times (or opposite depending on demand as ridership has grown over the last 5 years along Fulton St).
At Broadway Junction this new local service would allow for a branch off to replace the BMT Jamaica Line elevated structure along Fulton St and Crescent St. This new subway, along Jamaica Av to Crescent St where it would rise to meet the existing elevated track, would eliminate the slow curves at Crescent St and allow for faster service downtown for Jamaica riders. C trains would replace J/Z trains, through with the extra capacity some J trains could also run from Jamaica to Chamber St via Fulton St using the Nassau St connection within the Montague Tunnel. Service on the Broadway elevated, now used by B/D trains would terminate at Broadway Junction (or possibly Atlantic Av for an easier cross island transfer). This project would better serve the needs of north Brooklyn riders looking to reach Midtown as well as Jamaica riders who now no longer have to transfer at Broadway Junction for a faster ride downtown. L train riders coming from Canarsie have a better option in using 6th Av trains with the elimination of the very long transfer at Broadway Junction and can avoid the crowds at Bedford Av.
Finally, in Queens, the addition of a 2nd Av train on Queens Blvd and the reduced need for the M line means that service can be better adjusted along the Queens Blvd Subway as well as the addition of the Rockaway Beach Branch. Depending on the needs of riders there are a variety of service options so as an example: 2nd Av trains are routed along 63rd St and local out to Rego Park where they branch off and head down to Rockaway, M trains are converted back to V express trains via 53rd St and out to Jamaica-179th St (taking over the few express E trains that use the terminal at rush hour). This way Queens Blvd riders have options for both east and west sides of Manhattan as well as additional express trains.
Future extensions in upper Manhattan and the Bronx must also be considered such as extending 2nd Av west to Broadway and building a new branch north. The original concept for 2nd Av was to allow better service along the 6 train by rerouting it down the express tracks of 2nd Av. With no express tracks this leaves the northern end of 2nd Av acting as a branch line rather than a trunk line. Without them it hardly makes sense to extend the line further north since it would require riders transfer from express trains to local trains when they could just stay on the express via Lexington Av. Adding provisions for future express tracks in Midtown would open up more options in the future such as finally replacing the 3rd Av El torn down in the 1970s or converting the 6 train to B Division and giving Pelham Bay riders a faster ride downtown.
Admittedly this plan will cost much more than the existing 2nd Ave Subway proposal and involve considerably more parts. But the point I’m trying to illustrate is that the current plan only helps residents along the east side of Manhattan get uptown or downtown a little better. It does almost nothing for riders from Queens and Brooklyn, to say nothing of the Bronx. Building strategic connections and reworking bottlenecks to open up capacity uses the new trunk line to its fullest potential. The plan I’ve created doesn’t even require full express tracks be built but does allow for them in the future should demand along 2nd Av for downtown service grow. Express tracks could then be built later (in the same way that it took 27 years to build express tracks on 6th Av) and new services added for demand we cannot today predict. Knowing how similar multi part projects have gone in the past (IND Second System, 1968 Program for Action) it’s wise to assume that some sections may not be built. But the point is to design the project so that one day they could be. Planners today are scared that they can’t get anything built that they don’t even bother to design their projects to full potential. The current transfers to 2nd Av require riders using multiple stairs and long corridors all because planners are too scared to design their stations properly, even if it means more disruptive construction. If the 2nd Ave Subway is not designed correctly then it will be the most expensive mistake since ramming highways through dense cities. The NYC Subway is littered with poor planning mistakes which have hampered service ever since; we need not make the same mistakes. Costs must be brought under control cost should not be an excuse to build a less effective subway line. Transit should be built where it’s most effective not where it’s cheapest to build.
Edit 5/28/2017: After discussion here and on social media I’ve created a second version which swaps the V and H trains. H trains now run down 6th Ave and V trains down 2nd Ave. V trains would take over from the B as Brighton Beach express but would face a bottleneck on Queens Blvd. Because of this the layup tracks at 55 St-2 Av would be even more important for extra service on Brighton Beach.
Interestingly the low V frequency on QB makes space available in the 63rd St Tunnel for rerouted R trains. As there is now 2nd Av service through 63rd St this deals with the issue of the loss of transfer at Lexington Av: R trains riders can switch at Roosevelt Island or 21 Av for east side service on the V!
Lastly, I took a look at Queens Plaza and with the addition of two new switches I finally figured out how G trains can terminate there instead! Just north of Court Sq (G) a double crossover can be installed and on the Manhattan bound tracks approaching Queens Plaza station the single crossover can be upgraded to a double. This separates terminating G trains on the outside, “local”, tracks and E/H trains on the inside. Riders coming from Brooklyn and wanting to continue to Queens can just walk straight across the platform and vise versa for riders coming from Queens going to Brooklyn.
See the alternative map here.
Note: This post is not a fully realized futureNYCSubway proposal but rather a plea for planners to reconsider what is being planned for 2nd Ave. I hope to show that with strategic connections the 2nd Ave Subway can have a wider ranging impact on the system as a whole. Growth in norther Brooklyn and southern Queens can now be better addressed by freeing up existing capacity. Unlike with the much broader futureNYCSubway maps this is a much more focused and realistic vision should the powers that be chose to change their plans.