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The Line That Time Forgot

They call the Second Avenue subway the greatest New York project never built. They may have to think of a new name.


Beloved, believed in, glimpsed fleetingly only to disappear again for decades, the Second Avenue subway has long seemed to be New York City’s version of the Loch Ness monster. The plan has been on the drawing board since the year Babe Ruth hit his first home run for the Yankees—that is to say, since 1920, when it was envisioned as part of a massive subway expansion that brought us the IND, the trains that now run under Sixth and Eighth avenues. But the Second Avenue subway was derailed by the Great Depression, and despite a string of vigorous efforts, the plan just never got back on track.

That, however, may be about to change. The Second Avenue subway is surfacing again, and this time the vision of a new line just may finally be realized.

The project is suddenly enjoying a perfect storm of favorable circumstances. Peter Kalikow, the MTA’s chairman, is committed to expanding the system in a way not seen since—well, not since Babe Ruth hit his first home run for the Yankees. Some of the money is already secured: The MTA has a quarter of the $4 billion or so it needs to launch the first leg. Meanwhile, federal officials are bullish on the plan, partly as a result of lobbying by Kalikow, a major GOP fund-raiser, and many believe the federal government will soon commit to paying at least a third of the first portion’s price tag.

Finally, a big political obstacle has been removed: Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whose district is on the Lower East Side, is telling colleagues that he’s ready to support the plan even if the MTA decides to begin uptown. “I am flexible on doing stages as long as there’s the understanding that we’ll ultimately do a full build,” he says.

Sure, hurdles remain—it has to clear a final environmental review, and state and federal officials have to actually come up with the money, not just talk about it. But with Silver and Kalikow squarely behind the project, and consensus emerging among pols and civic groups (the Straphangers Campaign, the Regional Plan Association) on how and where to start it, the Second Avenue subway may be closer to reality than at just about any time during its tortured 84-year history.

“We can really build it in our lifetime,” says Mysore Nagaraja, the MTA’s chief engineer charged with overseeing construction. Nagaraja, a slight, bespectacled man with the calming presence of a pediatrician, often hears colleagues joke that he should take a long look at the sun now, because he may spend the next decade or so underground. “You may have a dream, but is it realistic?” Nagaraja wonders aloud. “This is realistic. It’s really buildable.”

With luck, and a last-minute burst of political will, the MTA could break ground as early as next year on the biggest subway expansion in 60 years.

If you want to know why the dream of a Second Avenue subway line has endured, take a ride on the 4 train at 8:30 a.m. on a workday. If MTA rush-hour stats are to be believed, you’ll be sharing a train car with around 180 commuters. While on the West Side there are two and sometimes more lines, on the East Side, the Lexington Avenue line has borne the burden alone since the Third Avenue El came down in the mid-fifties. On any given weekday, the Lex carries 1.5 million passengers, more daily riders than the metro systems in Washington, D.C., Boston, and Chicago—combined.

The Second Avenue subway would change that. The northern terminus would be at 125th Street and Lexington Avenue, allowing proximity to Metro-North, with its connections to Westchester. After traveling down Second Avenue, the line would fork at 65th Street. One line would curve west, to the F-train station at 63rd and Lexington, where it would join an already built tunnel linking to the Broadway N and R lines. The main stem, meanwhile, would continue down Second Avenue to the financial district. The cost of the entire project (which wouldn’t be complete till 2020) would be more than $17 billion, requiring construction of 16 new stations, as well as 28 sophisticated new trains that can travel closer together, thus easing congestion even further.

The MTA wants to build the line—which would ultimately be 8.5 miles long—in small, financially realistic stages. Although the MTA is considering other options, the first portion would likely start at 96th down to the 63rd Street station, where it would join the rest of the system.

The first leg will likely require the drilling of a shaft some seven stories deep into Manhattan at 96th Street and Second Avenue. Then a monstrous tunnel-boring machine—nicknamed “the Mole” by tunnel pros—would be lowered to the bottom. The Mole will inch forward, its spinning blades dislodging chunks of prehistoric bedrock—1.5 million cubic yards of it in phase one—after which the tunnel will be shored up with concrete lining.

The Mole is a technological breakthrough. It enables tunneling to go on far beneath the surface with little impact aboveground, unlike the old “cut and cover” technique, which tore up streets. “We can tunnel without disturbing buildings,” says Nagaraja. “People in the buildings won’t even feel it.”

That’s not to say there won’t be any serious disruptions. The drilling of the shaft would close a lane or two on Second Avenue in the Nineties. And then there are the new stations, which would be built inside existing buildings—not on sidewalks—meaning major problems for those who live or work in those structures. Whole shops are likely to vanish. You might want to drop by for a last look at the Food Emporium supermarket at 86th Street, or the Falk Drug and Surgical Supply store, at 72nd. They’ll likely be gone in a few years, condemned and replaced by state-of-the-art subway entrances. “It’s not a good feeling to think you have to leave the place you’ve been in for 50 years,” says Perry Falk, the drugstore owner. “This has been our home forever.”

And yet there appears to be little organized resistance thus far. “The subway is something that the overwhelming majority of East Siders want,” says Charles Warren, chairman of the Upper East Side’s Community Board 8. “The opposition we’ve seen so far is really to the location of stations, not to the project as a whole.”

The slow, fitful progress of the Second Avenue subway began on an early spring afternoon in 1925, in a park in Harlem, when New York’s mayor, a pasty-faced pol named John Hylan, raised a silver pickax above his head and plunged it into the sod beneath his feet.

He was breaking ground on phase one of a massive new IND subway system that would allow the city to tear down those nineteenth-century relics—elevated tracks—that blocked out sunlight from Manhattan’s major thoroughfares. The Second Avenue line would be phase two of this grand expansion.

Hylan hoped that his swing of the pickax would strike a great blow on behalf of the city’s people against their oppressors: the private companies that ran the IRT and what would become the BMT. Hylan called them “grasping transportation monopolies,” because they refused to risk profits expanding into new residential frontiers. The IND—the first municipally owned line—would challenge their hegemony.

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