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The Next Big Things

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Plans have existed since the twenties to build a Second Avenue line. Construction began in 1972, and three short sections of the line were built; construction was abandoned when the project was stopped three years later because of the fiscal crisis. If the need was clear enough to the city elders in 1972, then it should be clearer still now. In one of those absurd New York anomalies, three lines serve the West Side -- the IRT and the Sixth Avenue and Eighth Avenue lines -- while only one serves the East Side, where population and commercial concentrations are far greater. The Lexington Avenue line is the most crowded line not only in the city but probably in the country and perhaps in the Western Hemisphere. Where standards call for about four to five square feet of space per passenger, Lex-line riders have roughly three square feet to call their own.

In January, the Regional Plan Association, the New York region's leading planning organization, released its MetroLink proposal, a mightily ambitious plan to add nineteen miles, 35 stations, and nearly 1,000 new cars to the system. The centerpiece is a new Second Avenue line, running not just in Manhattan but all the way from Co-op City in the Bronx down to Wall Street and over to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. The new subway, under the RPA plan, could also be used as an eventual link from Grand Central to JFK (a spur of the Second Avenue line would kick over to Grand Central).

It's a huge plan with a huge price tag -- almost $13 billion -- and, for now, without definite financing. "We thought that if we put this out and proposed a way to pay for it -- a new tax or something -- the headlines would be planning group proposes new tax, and that would be the end of it," says Jeff Zupan of the RPA. "So our strategy was, let's get people excited about the idea, and then we'll devise a way of financing it." It may be working; Chuck Schumer is only the most prominent of several elected officials to sign on, and Manhattan borough president C. Virginia Fields is mounting an extensive postcard campaign.

The MTA has plans for a Second Avenue line, but to run only from 63rd Street to 125th Street. But the timetable is vague, and this wouldn't serve people on the Lower East Side, arguably the most underserved neighborhood in Manhattan.

Another subway proposal, offered by Pataki, would bring LIRR trains to Grand Central Terminal. This was a longtime pet project of former Senator Alfonse D'Amato's, hatched in part to ease the lot of the 50,000 to 70,000 Long Islanders who commute to the East Side and who now have to go to Penn Station and walk east or take two subway trains or cab it.

It's not a bad idea: Consider that people commute to three Manhattan destinations (east and west midtown, and downtown) from three directions (north, west, and east). That's nine possible commutes, only four of which are efficiently served: north (Westchester) to the East Side via Metro-North; east (Long Island) to the West Side via the LIRR; west (New Jersey) to the West Side, and west to downtown, both via the path. Anything that will untie that knot is all to the good, but bringing the LIRR to Grand Central without building the Second Avenue line would, Zupan stresses, only make the situation on the Lex even worse than it is now.

The city has been cool to the RPA plan. Giuliani is apparently more interested in the West Side -- specifically, extending the No. 7 train over beyond Tenth Avenue and down to the Javits Center. Some see this as a stalking horse for the mayor's stadium dreams, but stadiums aside, this, too, is a good idea -- the West Forties and Fifties are the next logical place for the growth of commercial office space -- and city-planning director Joe Rose estimates that this could be done "for around $1 billion."

The RPA will probably have to settle for less than it wants, but it's right about the need. "We spent $20 billion since '82 to fix the subway, because it was a crisis," Zupan says. "Here we have a different kind of crisis, a crisis of stagnation. We haven't built and it's too crowded, and people are going to vote with their feet."

3. THE TRAIN TO THE PLANE

Next time you're stuck out on the Van Wyck, take a look at how narrow the median strip is. It's literally about as wide as a dining-room table. And that's where the trouble started.


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