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Second Avenue Subway: A Long Time Coming

Jeffrey Syken

“…heavily overcrowded . . . In a relatively short time the existing subway will be wholly unable to meet the transit requirements of the East-Side of Manhattan…”
RE: excerpt from: “Report by the Chief Engineer submitting for consideration a comprehensive rapid transit plan covering all Boroughs of the City of New York, August 2, 1920”

In 1920, Daniel L. Turner, Chief Engineer of the Office of the Transit Construction Commissioner, proposed a city-wide rail expansion, which came to include a six-track subway under Second Avenue; from the Bronx to lower Manhattan. A modified version of the plan, approved in 1929, was undone by the onset of the Great Depression and then by the outbreak of WWII. Pressured by public sentiment, civic groups, political leaders, financial restraints and, ultimately, by the need for scrap-iron to support the war effort, NYC went ahead and demolished the Second Avenue El in 1942, and the Third Avenue El, in 1956, leaving the East-Side, amid a boom in new apartment buildings, with nothing but the Lexington Avenue subway line (4-5-6) to serve the growing population. Inevitably, it came to be the most crowded train in the entire U.S.

For East-Siders living east of Third Avenue, this meant a long walk, mostly uphill, to get to the Lexington Avenue line (it became known locally as “The Walk”). The NYC Board of Transportation saw its first deficits in the 1940s and ‘50s, thanks to belt-tightening through two wars (WWII and Korea), a shrunken workforce and New Yorkers’ increasing reliance on the personal automobile, which was encouraged by NYC’s “Master Builder” Robert Moses. Thus, funds from a NYC public transit bond act passed in 1951 were diverted from the SAS project to purchase new rolling stock and make much needed repairs to the existing subway system. By 1957, The New York Times was proclaiming: “It is highly improbable that the Second Avenue Subway will ever materialize.”

However, with the passing of the Urban Mass Transit Act of 1964, which guaranteed Federal dollars for public transportation, the passing of a transit bond act in 1967 and the formation of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in 1968, the stage was set for construction of the SAS to begin by the early 1970s. Once again, the project would be stymied by outside events, this time by NYC’s bankruptcy, which put a halt to construction in 1975. Fast-forward to the 1990s when both financing and political will came together to get SAS back on-track. In April 2007 ground was broken on Phase I (of four) which would extend the Q-line to the upper East-Side along Second Avenue via three new, state-of-the-art, stations (at 72nd, 86th and 96th Street/s) and a reconfigured 63rd Street-Lexington Avenue Station. Fast-tracked to open on New Year’s Day 2017, SAS-Phase I did exactly what it set out to do; relieve overcrowding on the Lexington Avenue line and provide East-Side residents with reliable and easily accessible public transportation. It just took 97 years to do it.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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