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The Line That Time Forgot

Phase one was built during the mid-thirties, but cost overruns and the Great Depression postponed phase two. In 1941, the hated Second Avenue El was torn down, leading residents of Yorkville to parade in the streets. A new underground line couldn’t be far behind, it seemed—but World War II suspended all construction.

The Second Avenue subway landed on the front page of the Times in 1950 when Democrat Ferdinand Pecora made it an issue in his mayoral run. He lost, but subway overcrowding remained a popular fixation, and a year later, New Yorkers approved $500 million in government bonds for the project. Officials quietly spent most of the half-billion dollars on repairs. When news leaked that the money was gone and there was still no subway, a furor erupted. “It is highly improbable that the Second Avenue subway will ever materialize,” the Times lamented.

A decade later, with conditions on the Lex already intolerable, two men relaunched the project: Nelson Rockefeller and MTA chairman William Ronan, a self-styled Moses-like master builder. In 1972, Rockefeller, Ronan, Mayor John Lindsay, and a young congressman named Ed Koch journeyed to 102nd Street to break ground.

As reporters scribbled, Lindsay drily noted that in the twenties, “some people suggested a transit facility along Second Avenue. And it was such a good idea that I decided to follow up on it immediately.” The pols took their swings with a pickax—but in an uncanny piece of symbolism, none could dent the pavement. A worker with a power rig was called in to break the concrete.

To be sure, workers did build three segments of tunnel—between 99th and 105th streets, between 110th and 120th, and another downtown. But then the seventies fiscal crisis shelved the project yet again, and by the eighties, the MTA was running newspaper ads offering to rent the tunnels to private companies. “I remember being asked by a magazine, ‘What should we do with the excavations?’ ” Koch says. “I proposed growing mushrooms in them. Mushrooms need a dark interior.”

This legacy of failure has meant that New York, a city that prizes all things new and current, has a transit system that was last expanded around the time Paris fell to the Nazis. “The list of new mass-transit projects built in other world cities in recent decades is incredible,” says New York subway historian Clifton Hood. “But here, we’re still riding around on a system built by our great-grandparents.”

For the first time since Rockefeller and Ronan, the Second Avenue subway has two powerful patrons on the state level: Assembly Speaker Silver and MTA chairman Kalikow, a real-estate magnate who’s spent a career building big projects.

Silver has been widely hailed as a Second Avenue subway hero since 1999, the last time the MTA passed a five-year capital plan, when he threatened to block a host of big state projects unless funds for the line were included. The MTA put $1 billion in its budget—a substantial sum still waiting to be spent. Silver’s leverage is again at a maximum, because the MTA this winter will pass its next five-year plan, and Governor George Pataki wants to please his suburban base by funding East Side Access, a tunnel linking the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal. That gives Silver a chance to play let’s-make-a-deal with Pataki and, if necessary, do what he did last time: hold up other big projects—like East Side Access—to win another burst of state funds.

Kalikow, meanwhile, is the first MTA chairman in a generation who badly wants the project to happen; his recent predecessors were too busy rescuing the system from crime, graffiti, decay, and declining ridership. He has been aggressively lobbying (and throwing private fund-raisers for) U.S. senators like Richard Shelby and Patty Murray, who wield influence over transportation funds. Kalikow is engaged in other intricate behind-the-scenes politicking: He’s told colleagues that he may try to use $600 million in funds already earmarked for a train to La Guardia airport (a plan with an uncertain future) for the Second Avenue subway. That may lead to a clash with City Hall, which is likely to want the cash for extending the 7 line west.

There are reasons to be optimistic about the Feds. In a barely noticed development in February, the Federal Transit Administration put the plan on its short list of projects being considered for funding. That’s a big deal, because FTA money comes from a pot of federal dough separate from funds overseen by Republicans who are trying to rejigger transit funding to shaft the city. FTA bucks are less captive to partisan wrangling and actually tend to be doled out to projects based on the merits. The FTA likes the Second Avenue subway because it would serve more than 500,000 and has broad support among New York pols.

Kalikow vows that FTA funds are all but secured for the first leg. “I’m completely confident we will have funding from the federal government by the end of the year,” Kalikow says. If the FTA chips in at least $1.2 billion, and Silver secures another $1 billion, the MTA, with $1 billion already on hand, will be in striking distance.

“If the stars aren’t already aligned right now, they’re pretty damn close,” says Elliot Sander, a senior VP at DMJM+Harris, which would help build the first part.