The History and Controversy Behind the Second Avenue Subway

By: Keren Neugroschl  |  February 5, 2017

Second Ave Subway 1Second Ave Subway 2

As New Yorkers celebrated the end of an eventful 2016 and the beginning of the new year, commuters had one more thing to celebrate this New Year’s Day—the opening of the Second Avenue Subway. The $4.5 billion project, which extended the Q line from the existing station at Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street to Second Avenue and 72nd, 86th, and 96th Streets, marks the first major New York City subway expansion in over 50 years. This extension of the Q line is only the first phase of a proposed 4-phase project that will create a new T line that will run along Second Avenue from 125th Street to Hanover Square.

This added subway line is desperately needed for Manhattan’s East Side residents who have the Lexington Avenue Subway as their sole mode of subway transportation. As a result, the Lexington Avenue Subway is the most congested subway line, not only in Manhattan, but in the entire country. In 2015, it was estimated that nearly 1.3 million riders used this subway line daily. The new Second Avenue Subway, currently serving only the Upper East Side, is expected to serve 200,000 commuters daily which will result in 13% fewer riders using the Lexington Avenue Subway. This will decrease the amount of delays and reduce many people’s commutes by over ten minutes.

The completion of phase one of this massive project is especially exciting for East Siders who have been waiting for this subway for nearly a century. The Second Avenue Subway was first proposed by Daniel L. Turner, the Chief Engineer at the New York Public Service Commission, in 1919 in his proposal to develop the New York City transit system titled, “Comprehensive Rapid Transit Plan.” This plan suggested the creation of a subway line on Second Avenue to alleviate the already apparent overcrowding on the relatively new subway line running along Lexington Avenue.

In 1927, Turner refined his plans for the Second Avenue Subway and in 1929 the Board of Transportation set aside $86 million to begin construction. However, the plans for building this new subway line were quickly abandoned as the Great Depression hit later that year and then the United States entered World War II.

After the war, plans for the Second Avenue Subway were revisited but at that point the project cost approximately $504 million. New York approved $500 million in government bonds for the subway line, but with the outbreak of the Korean War, the Second Avenue Subway construction was again suspended. Subsequently, all of the money was used in other transportation projects to enhance the already existing subway lines.

In 1967, with the creation of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), New York City was granted $600 million towards transportation construction projects. The next year, the Second Avenue Subway was again proposed and $25 million in federal funds were allocated towards the project.

Finally, in 1972, construction began on the Second Avenue Subway at 103rd Street. However, three years later, New York City nearly went bankrupt and ran out of funds for the project. With only three short tunnels between 120th Street and 110th Street, 105th Street and 99th Street, and Canal Street and Chatham Square, construction of the Second Avenue Subway was stopped.

Plans for the Second Avenue Subway were completely abandoned until the 1990s when overcrowding on the Lexington Avenue Subway became such a problem that the city was forced to look at possible solutions. Plans for the four phases of the Second Avenue Subway were drawn up and approved in 2006, with the federal government providing $1.3 billion for the first phase of the project. In spring of the next year, the official groundbreaking took place at 99th Street. Finally, after delays and pushed off end dates, the first part of the Second Avenue Subway was opened to the public this past New Year’s Day.

While the Second Avenue Subway has gained the support of politicians across the political spectrum by promising to be the solution to transit problems on the East Side, it has not come without its controversies. The construction that took place for 10 years caused a series of problems for Upper East Side residents. In 2009, buildings were evacuated near the construction site that sustained damage and were left leaning. The tunnel excavation, which involved blasting, upset residents who did not appreciate the loud noises that they were forced to endure for extended periods of time. In 2012, residents were further outraged when there was a dangerous explosion on 72nd Street that left no one injured, but caused concrete to fly eight stories above-ground. The construction also blocked sidewalks, restricting foot traffic, and leaving many local businesses without enough customers to stay open. In addition, the project ended up being $700 million over budget, costing $4.5 billion and making it the most expensive subway project in the world.

Even with construction completed, the Second Avenue Subway still faces controversy. Upper East Side residents living near the new subway line are facing the prospect of major rent increases. The area used to be affordable with a median rent lower than that of the rest of Manhattan. However, the new subway line makes the neighborhood more desirable, causing property prices to increase. With spiking rents, residents are worrying that they will need to move to more affordable communities and business owners who lasted through the construction are worrying that they will be forced to close.

Despite all of these concerns, phase two of the construction is expected to begin by 2019 or 2020 if New York City can find the $6 billion that it is estimated to cost—which is looking not to be a problem. President Donald Trump has made phases two and three of the Second Avenue Subway, extending the line up to 125th Street and then down to Houston Street, priorities in his infrastructure improvement plans across the country. Recently leaked documents have suggested that President Trump may even designate up to $14.2 billion in federal funds for this project.

While some East Side residents are rejoicing at the possibility of having an extended Second Avenue Subway, others are wary of a renewed construction process and the likelihood of increased rents. Either way, New Yorkers are probably going to have to wait a while for phase two to be completed—although hopefully a little shorter than 98 years this time.