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Last updated:
Dec. 2006.

Ghost Train:
the Second Avenue Subway

Who could not be for the Second Avenue subway, on Manhattan's East Side? Decades ago, politicians solemnly promised an entire new subway line there to replace the long-reaching networks of the Second and Third Avenue elevated trains, the "els", which were hurriedly torn down, in 1942 and 1956 respectively. Virtually none of the els' delicate Victorian ironwork, stained glass or surrounding human-scale neighborhoods survived. We all know the politicians were lying and nothing got built. Amazingly, however, from 1972 to 1975, the MTA did manage to build a few short unconnected subway segments, totaling about a mile, along the route. Today, the east-side Lexington Avenue subway remains among the most overcrowded in the city and the very densely developed residential areas to the east of the subway still lack rail transit.

Around 2004, the MTA trotted out its dog and pony show describing its one billion dollar environmental impact study and preliminary engineering effort needed to begin this line. You read right -- that's one billion dollars, just to do the preliminary studies! (Apparently, the five decades worth of existing engineering studies are no longer valid because the MTA claims elevators have to be added at each station.]

For politicians, of course, whose constituents are daily forced onto packed subways, it is essential to -- once again solemnly in front of the cameras -- sign on to the costly subway proposal. Although we at Auto-Free New York are happy that politicians are talking in favor of a massive expansion of the subway system, they remain noticeably reticent about saying who is going to pay for it. The MTA's engineers estimate that it would cost upwards of $10 billion to build a ten-mile subway from Whitehall Street to the Harlem River. Another $5 to $10 billion would be needed to extend the line to the Bronx or Brooklyn. The MTA's current five-year capital program earmarks only one billion dollars, or $200 million per year, for the Second Avenue line. At that rate, it would take 50 years just to complete the Manhattan segment, and another 25 to 50 years to extend it to the Bronx and Brooklyn (ie around the year 2100)!

Convincing Washington or Albany to come up with any significant contribution will not be easy, given the city's demands for recovery after September 11, and the State Capitol's utter budgetary dysfunction. Given the strength of motoring interests at City Hall, diverting funds from the repairs, widening and enhancements of highways within the five boroughs appears to be out of the question, and asking subway riders in the other four boroughs to pay higher fares to support revenue bonds to pay for the Second Avenue subway seems unrealistic, since it is well known that the zipcodes the new subway line would run through contain some of the highest concentrations of billionaires' and other extremely wealthy people's residences in the nation, and for that matter, the world.

Affordable Surface Light Rail
In the near term, perhaps the best steps that the MTA can undertake are to find ways to increase service and reduce overcrowding on the Lexington Express and introduce much more affordable surface light rail transit on the East Side. By studying the light rail experience of more sophisticated cities both here and abroad, NYC could develop a new light rail line on prioritized lanes or in an auto-free Second Avenue that would dramatically increase the livability of Manhattan's auto-clogged East Side.

A light rail line for Second Avenue was the subject of an extended essay in the March 1996 New York Streetcar News. This essay will be updated and posted on this website soon, but in the meantime, if you would like a copy of the back issue, email us with your mailing address. Also check out a detailed analysis of East Side light rail options. This analysis was done by Philipp Rode, a student at Berlin Technical University in Germany, when he served as an intern for the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility, Inc. (IRUM) in NYC in 1999 and 2000.

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