The Second Avenue Subway: Less for More

Photo by the NYC MTA


Though every Fordham student has ridden the subway at least once since moving to New York City, not as many are familiar with the city’s most recent expansion of the system. 

In 2017, the subway officially brought the Q train from 57th Street-Seventh Avenue to 96th Street along Second Avenue, receiving praise for its efficiency, cleanliness, and modernity in comparison to the much older Lexington Avenue line (also known as the 4, 5, and 6 trains). Five years later, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is now preparing for a further extension of the Q to meet the Lexington line at 125th Street in East Harlem, to begin construction as early as this fall.

Rendering of the new 125th Street station on the extended Q train. Source.

According to an analysis by the Transit Costs Project at New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management, Phase I of the Second Avenue subway (the portion that opened in 2017) was “the most expensive subway built in the world on a per-kilometer basis,” valued at $5.6 billion dollars at the time of the study. The report attributed the exorbitant cost of the project to interagency coordination and governance failures: “the federal government fragmented and sprawled as more proxies needed to be managed and audited, new programs and grants needed to be administered…” Worse, Phase II of the project (extending the Q to 125th street) is expected to cost even more, estimated at $7.7 billion

Despite the benefits the SAS may bring to Upper East Siders, the $12 billion price tag is hardly justifiable. To understand why, it is important to reflect on how the city got to this place.

Map of the original 1929 plan of expansion. Source.

The first time a Second Avenue line was officially proposed in 1929, it came as part of a larger package deal. The series of projects would have added over 100 miles of new routes throughout the city to relieve congestion and create new express routes and connections to under-resourced areas of the city, including Maspeth and College Point in Queens and Laconia in the Bronx. 

While some of these projects were eventually built, most notably G train and Queens portions of the E, F, M, and R trains today, the more ambitious projects remained untouched. As one of those unstarted projects, a 4- and 6-track Second Avenue subway (compared to today’s 2-track line) played a pivotal role as the new Manhattan-Bronx line with express and local services, connecting to Brooklyn via the Chrystie street tunnel and Laconia and Throgs Neck in the Bronx. 

Though the first version of the SAS was stymied by the Great Depression, later plans were derailed by the infamous urban planner Robert Moses. Known for his preference for “automobile-owning whites of ‘upper’ and ‘comfortable middle’ classes,” as he called them, and…disdain for “[p]oor people and Blacks, who normally used public transit,” In both 1942 and 1954, Moses managed to derail two subsequent attempts at large-scale transit expansions that included the SAS, allocating the more-than-sufficient budget for new expressways.

Robert Moses preparing to defend the NYC World’s Fair before the NYS Judicial Conference. Source.

Where does that leave the Second Avenue subway today? Instead of the 6-track express service serving all Eastern Manhattan with connections to the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn, the subway is a comparatively meager two tracks and 4 stops (before Phase II, which will add another 3 stops). Though Phase II plans include provisions for a future extension to the Bronx and future plans will likely include a ready-to-use link to the Queens Boulevard line via the F, the reduced capacity from a two-track subway will hamstring the ability for the line to add future capacity and connections to the rest of the system. Additionally, if the cost of Phases I and II are any indication, attempting to retrofit the lines will balloon the cost of the project even further. 

Though discussing the intimate details of subway design might seem trite, the implications are substantial. Because of political constraints, operational challenges, and a change in transit culture away from the “never stop building” attitude of the early 20th century, the city’s subway system is markedly less accessible for underserved populations across the boroughs.

Rendering of the planned Interborough Express light rail at Wilson Avenue station, Brooklyn. Source.

Though the Second Avenue subway is almost certainly to be constructed as planned, there are numerous other transit projects under consideration where it is crucial that the public displays support and provides input to ensure it delivers on the needs of the population. It is also important to exert pressure on the MTA to prevent costs from ballooning, thus damaging the political feasibility of new projects. Those projects include: the Interboro Express (IBX), truncated from former Triboro Express proposals to exclude a connection to exclude the Bronx from Brooklyn and Queens; Phases III and IV of the Second Avenue subway extending south of 63rd street; and the QueensLink extending the M train from Forest Hills to the Rockaways, among others. All of these projects would provide substantial benefits to the communities they serve, but the only way for those benefits to materialize in the way New York City deserves is to keep fighting for their construction.


This article was edited by Naolin Crosthwaite-Gonzalez and Matthew DeMott.