Why We Can't Have Nice Things
Is the Second Avenue Subway Behind Schedule?

Is the Second Avenue subway behind schedule? Given that the line was first proposed in 1919 and has repeatedly been delayed since then, the answer is, well, yes, it’s very delayed. But just months before the planned unveiling of the first stage, an expert working on the project cautions it may miss its next deadline too. The New York Times:

After a presentation to the authority’s board in which several problems that could delay the opening date were outlined, the agency’s chairman, Thomas F. Prendergast, said he believed the work could be completed by the end of the year.

“There is still a ways to go, and we’re still hopeful at this time for Dec. 31,” Mr. Prendergast told board members.

An independent engineer for the project, Kent Haggas, was less optimistic. With just two months left, he warned, two of the three stations scheduled to open, at 86th and 72nd Streets, were not ready and that a rigorous testing schedule was not being met.

“Basically, the progress to date needs to be almost tripled on a weekly basis to give us confidence we’ll finish everything by the end of December,” Mr. Haggas said of the testing. “The program definitely needs to ramp up.”

Count us unsurprised. Even since serious construction of the tunnels and stations got underway in the last decade, the Second Avenue subway has repeatedly blown by cost projections and deadlines. At over $1.7 billion per kilometer, it is easily the most expensive urban mass transportation project in the world. In Europe, metro line construction generally costs something closer to $300 million per kilometer. Some of this cost disparity has to do with difficulty of drilling through Manhattan schist and under a heavily-developed street flanked on every block by high-rises. But much of it comes from an assortment of consultant fees and exceptionally high labor costs. Many of the workers tasked with boring the tunnel earned over $100 an hour, for instance.

The complexity of building the subway in the United States doesn’t just add costs; it adds delays (delays, meanwhile, add further costs). Coordinating between all of the consultants who have to be hired because of a web of city, state, and federal mandates simply makes it very difficult to meet deadlines. Meanwhile, union mandates often require that workers only be on the job for certain days, or at a certain time of day, or under certain conditions. Sometimes these restrictions make sense, but sometimes they just add headaches and complications. In Europe, things are generally more centralized and streamlined. Here in the United States, even getting a few extra miles of subway underground costs a fortune and takes decades.

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