The Long, Tortured History of the Second Avenue Subway

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Photo: mta.info

This week, the MTA announced further delays on the long-awaited, almost mythical Second Avenue subway line. But given the history of the line, the news was met with little surprise. In fact, the project has been delayed time after time over a span stretching back 80 years.

1929: NYC Board of Transportation budgets $86 million for its newly proposed Second Avenue T line, predicted to open between 1938 and 1941.

September 2, 1929: A New York Times headline blares “MANHATTAN SALES: Second Avenue Subway Project Causes 50 Percent Rise in Prices.” A month later, the Great Depression begins. Opening date hoped for is between 1938 and 1941.

1930: The Times reports on a “Subway loop to link 125th and 34th Sts … to run beneath Second Avenue.” However, the proposal is still in “tentative form.” Tentative indeed.

1931: Great Depression continues. New proposed opening date: 1948.

1939: The subway’s cost estimate balloons to $249 million.

1941: The Pearl Harbor attacks launch U.S. into World War II, causing funds and manpower for the line to be further postponed.

1944: Back to square one, the subway’s design undergoes alterations. New proposed opening date: 1951.

1949: The subway’s cost estimate rises to $504 million. New York Board of Transportation orders ten $100,000 trains custom-made for the T line. One now sits in the New York Transit Museum.

1950: More tinkering with the design plan. The onset of the Korean War brings inflation and costlier materials.

1951: City approves a $500 million bond for the subway — only $112 million ends up going toward the T. Construction set to start in 1957 or the following year.

1957: The New York Times’ front page presciently comments that “It is highly improbable that the Second Avenue subway will ever materialize.”

1967: New York State passes a $2.5 billion bond for transportation, including $600 million for New York City.

1968: The city applies for $254 million in federal funds, receiving an initial grant of $25 million. This marks the first time the federal government has helped fund new subway construction in New York City. At this point, the line is expected to cost $335 million.

1972: The T sees its first ground-breaking. New expected price tag: $1 billion. Federal government demands completion by “the end of this decade.”

1973: Expected price tag: $1.3 billion.

1974: Mayor Beame proposes six-year freeze on T funds to divert money to the rest of the system. Completion now expected between 1981 and 1983 — or as a top federal transit official had predicted a month earlier, 1986.

1975: Financial crisis halts construction after three years. Progress report: three noncontiguous strips of tunnel.

1978: State Comptroller Arthur Levitt declares that New York City “does not now intend nor does it have the resources to complete” the long-planned 14.3-mile Second Avenue subway line. There’s some transparency for ya.

The 1980s and 1990s: The Second Avenue subway plan goes into a decadelong period of realistic dormancy due to a lack of funds for anything beyond system maintenance.

1999: City Councilman A. Gifford Miller gripes to a City Council committee that “if the subway represents the arteries of our city, the Lexington Avenue line is about to cause us cardiac arrest.”

2001: DMJM Harris/Arup Joint Venture (DHAJV) is awarded a contract to design and engineer the Second Avenue subway.

2005: New York State passes the $2.9 billion Transportation Bond Act, supplying concrete funds for phase one, an extension of the Q train across 63rd Street and along Second Avenue to 96th Street. New tunnel-boring technology will be used in an attempt to minimize street disruption — an appropriate term, considering how long we’ve waited. New expected completion date: 2012, to wishfully go along with the city’s dreams of a 2012 Olympic bid.

April 12, 2007: Ceremonial ground-breaking; construction begins eleven days later. The Jets bet they can commit more false starts.

October 1, 2007: New York Construction magazine reports that the Lexington Avenue line, the East Side’s only subway, is running at 120 percent capacity.

2008: DMJM Harris | AECOM releases a status report heralding the Second Avenue subway as the “first major subway construction project in New York City to be undertaken in the 21st century.”

February 20, 2009: Mayor Bloomberg declares that the construction “is literally destroying every business on Second Avenue.”

Summer 2009: Subterranean signs tease subway riders with the prospect of a 2015 T-line opening.

July 22, 2009: The MTA reveals that construction could stretch into 2018, and the federal government frets about a potential $5.7 billion budget. Here’s to a century of T-line teases!