Volume 73, Number 34 | December 24 - 30, 2003

The Second Ave. subway: To build or not to build it?

U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, left, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney spoke in favor of building the Second Ave. subway line last Friday. Villager photo by Lorenzo Ciniglio

By Josh Rogers

East Side politicians from Harlem to Lower Manhattan came to City Hall last week to show their support for building a full-length Second Ave. subway and to counter a recent business report suggesting the project is not worth doing because it will take too long to construct.

“The full-length Second Ave. subway remains the most important and valuable transportation project that can be done for this entire region,” Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said at the Dec. 20 press conference, organized by U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney.

When a reporter asked whether anyone on the City Hall steps supported a shortened subway line from Harlem to 63rd St. — the so-called “stubway” — the politicians shouted “No,” almost in unison.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which once favored the partial-build option, now plans to begin building the full-length line from 125th St. to Hanover Sq. at the end of next year and finish in 2020.

Silver was the driving force behind securing $1 billion in state money for the project’s engineering, design and initial construction costs. Almost $14 billion is still needed and Silver said 90 percent of it should come from the federal government since the state has already invested so much.

“Ultimately it does not get built without a major federal commitment,” said Silver.

Maloney said Congress has funded the subway each of the last four years, but the total from the federal government so far is only $9 million, less than one-tenth of one percent of the project’s costs.

Silver said the new line would reduce overcrowding on the most crowded subway line in the nation, the Lexington Ave. subway, and would be a particular benefit to two neighborhoods he represents — Chinatown, which he said has suffered the biggest economic hardship as a result of 9/11, and the Lower East Side, where residents living near the East River are a long hike away from the closest subway entrance.

Not everyone agrees. The Partnership for New York City, made up of the city’s largest businesses, released a report last month suggesting that although there are clear benefits to the Second Ave. line — $12.62 billion in economic development and $8.4 billion in transportation benefits such as time savings — the project is not worth the $15.3 billion cost in present value terms.

“There is simply not enough money to do this,” Kathryn Wylde, the Partnership’s president, said recently. “It’s not that we wouldn’t all love the Second Ave. subway. The question is what are the tradeoffs?”

Wylde said by examining the subway line in terms of present value, the costs go up, since you invest money year after year to build it, while the benefits are reduced, since you have to wait until 2020 to reap them. “You don’t get any economic payback for 17 years,” said Wylde. “Present value” is an economic term measuring the value of something that will be realized in the future.

The politicians came armed with a report from the Regional Plan Association extolling the benefits of the Second Ave. subway line, but the report did not include present value estimates.

Wylde was not surprised by the omission. “They’re not economists,” she said last week. “They’re planners.”

Chris Jones, an R.P.A. vice president, said his group did do present value estimates, but analysts left it out of the report because they did not want it to be viewed as a response to the Partnership’s analysis. He said the differing conclusions are based on different assumptions about how fast the subway could be built and how much economic development it would trigger.

Jones said the subway line could be built in 12 years and that the M.T.A. and Partnership are being too conservative with the 17-year estimate. R.P.A.’s Rita Schwartz said given the accelerated construction estimate on the city’s water tunnel project and the quick reopening of the World Trade Center temporary PATH station, it is realistic to think that the subway line could be built faster than expected.

John McCarthy, an M.T.A. spokesperson, said last week that the agency continues to prepare to begin building the subway next year and is targeting 2020 as the completion date. He declined to comment on R.P.A.’s timetable.

R.P.A. also estimates that the new subway line would spur twice as much commercial development (7 million sq. ft.) as the Partnership estimates (3 million sq. ft.) will be built along Manhattan’s East Side.

The R.P.A. study also concluded that the new subway would lead to 70,000 jobs during construction and 86,000 afterwards, and that it would generate $1.26 billion in economic activity every year after it was built.

U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel of Harlem, the ranking member of the House’s powerful Ways & Means Committee, said, “The Partnership is in partnership with the wrong people because they’re not in partnership with us.” He added that he hoped to be able to work with the group and that if they came out in favor of the Second Ave. subway, he’d be happy to help them with the “J.F.K. link or whatever they want.”

He was referring to a link between the Queens airport, the Long Island Rail Road and Lower Manhattan, which may cost as much as $5 billion.

As for the Second Ave. subway, the two officials who control the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., Gov. Pataki and Mayor Mike Bloomberg, have never supported using 9/11 money on the project because it could only pay for a small piece of the line.

At last week’s press conference, Silver and Maloney stopped Mayor Bloomberg as he happened to be passing by on his way into City Hall. Bloomberg expressed general support for a full-length line, but added that there were a lot of good transportation projects and “if we had [enough money] we could build it all.”

Bloomberg has been more enthusiastic about extending the number 7 train to Manhattan’s West Side as part of his plan to develop the area, expand the Javits Center and build a stadium for the Jets and the Olympics, as part of the city’s bid to host the Summer Games in 2012.

Wylde’s report suggests that one project that is already on the fast track, East Side Access, connecting the L.I.R.R. to Grand Central Terminal at $6 billion, is questionable because it will take nine years to get $4.2 billion in transportation benefits and spur $9.68 billion worth of development.

“East Side Access does not work unless you have a Second Ave. subway,” said Silver, noting that the former project would lead to overcrowding on the Lexington Ave. line.

Maloney, Rangel and Silver were joined last week by among others, State Sen. Martin Connor, Assemblymember Deborah Glick, Madelyn Wils, chairperson of Lower Manhattan’s Community Board 1, Betsy Gotbaum, the city’s public advocate, City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, Councilmembers Margarita Lopez, Eva Moskowitz and Phil Reed and David Givens, chairperson of Harlem’s Community Board 11.


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