Blog Transportation

Why We Should Go Slow on the Second Avenue Subway

November 03, 2015

After a yearlong delay the MTA Board has submitted a revised five-year capital plan for approval by the State Capital Program Review Board. The plan is drawing criticism because it reduces the amount allocated for Phase Two of the new Second Avenue Subway from $1.5 billion to $535 million, but this was a wise decision. The plan is well-constructed and should move forward as is.

Phase One of the project is already fully funded and creates a new route up Second Avenue from 63rd Street to 96th Street with three stations along the way; Phase Two will extend the line up Second Avenue with two new stations on the way to the existing 125th Street station on Lexington Avenue. Going slow on Phase Two makes good sense for two reasons.

First, the MTA had to cut more than $3 billion from its initial $32 billion plan because money was short.  The MTA staff found some savings through procurement efficiencies, but made hard decisions about cuts as well. Reducing funding for a new line was consistent with the sound policy of keeping existing services in a state of good repair should take priority over pushing new projects; not jeopardizing reliable service and safety on current subway lines serving millions daily is more important than a fast pace for a new service reaching far fewer riders.

Second, it is probably no longer feasible to implement the faster schedule for Phase Two construction owing to the delay in approving the capital plan. The initial proposal scheduled more than $1.0 billion for construction work in the last year of the plan, 2019, with the earlier funding primarily for planning and design, including about $420 million in 2015 and 2016. Given the delay, planning and design contracts were postponed, making it unlikely for construction to begin by 2019. The new plan acknowledges reality and moves the $1.0 billion in construction work into the next five-year plan.

Finally, it should be noted that riders on the Lexington Avenue line north of 96th Street will benefit from Phase One construction of the Second Avenue subway, as crowding and resulting delays will be reduced. Over the past three years 4, 5, and 6 trains have become less reliable, a trend the MTA attributes partially to passenger loading delays at crowded stations. For the Lexington Avenue line, passenger volumes peak at 86th Street and 68th Street-Hunter College for express and local trains, respectively. When Phase One stations open in 2017 some of these riders will shift stations, alleviating crowding and improving service for all Lexington Avenue line riders. This indirect benefit would be less noticeable in Phase Two: approximately 53,000 riders enter the Lexington Avenue line at stations above 96th Street on an average weekday as opposed to more than 165,000 entering stations between 68th Street and 96th Street.

The MTA Board and its chairman have made a good call in fitting the new capital plan to available resources by adjusting the timetable for Phase Two of the Second Avenue subway. Let’s all look forward to the start of service on Phase One and use it as a basis for showing the potential for a carefully-planned Phase Two.