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Train in Vain

Why the Second Avenue subway never got on track.

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If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we build a Second Avenue subway line? In the half-century since the city decided to tear down the Third Avenue El in favor of a Bronx-to-Brooklyn East Side subway, the train has chugged along in our collective unconscious, its fortunes rising and falling with the city's economy. A brief history of New York City's 50-year, $100 million quest to build a straight line -- and the endless loop we've created instead:

1951 As the economy booms, voters back a $500 million bond to replace the Third Avenue El with a Second Avenue subway. The bond succeeds -- in demolishing the El.

1967 Nelson Rockefeller successfully proposes a $1 billion subway expansion that would include an East Side line. The city digs tunnels below East Harlem and the Lower East Side before the economy collapses. To make sure Second Avenue doesn't collapse with it, the MTA is forced to sink maintenance funds into the money pits.

1991 As part of his pricey master plan to rescue New York City from the clutches of the bear market, Mario Cuomo sketches a Second Avenue line into an ambitious blueprint cluttered with airport people-movers and high-speed ferries. The city recovers. Cuomo doesn't.

1999 Happy days are here again. Borough chief C. Virginia Fields eats a sardine sandwich to symbolically protest overcrowding on the 6 train, and the MTA proposes a $3.6 billion scaled-back Second Avenue line with supplemental trolley service. Would an elevated line be cheaper?


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