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The Routes Not TakenA Trip Through New York City's Unbuilt Subway System$

Joseph B. Raskin

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780823253692

Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: May 2014

DOI: 10.5422/fordham/9780823253692.001.0001

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Building the Line That Almost Never Was

Building the Line That Almost Never Was

(p.199) 9 Building the Line That Almost Never Was
The Routes Not Taken

Joseph B. Raskin

Fordham University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter 9 is a discussion of the efforts to build the 2nd Avenue Subway. It traces that line’s history from its initial proposal as part of the 1929 Board of Transportation plan through the modern era, This chapter also looks at earlier proposals made to build a subway trunk line up through the East Side of Manhattan. This chapter also looks at the fate of the elevated subway lines that once ran the length of Manhattan Island, including examining with the legend of the structural steel for those lines once they were demolished.

Keywords:   Transit capital financing, Second Avenue Subway, Elevated Subways, Transit Planning, New York Board of Transportation, New York City Transit Authority, Metropolitan Transportation Authority

It’s impossible not to write about New York’s unbuilt subway lines without discussing the 2nd Avenue subway. The question of when it would be built has been asked for more than eighty years. It’s being partially answered with the construction of a segment east and north from the Lexington Avenue station on the 63rd Street line to 96th Street and 2nd Avenue, one step in a process that has lasted the entire twentieth century and into the twentieth-first century. There have been at least thirty-eight separate official proposals for additional lines serving the East Side of Manhattan, issued by every agency with the responsibility for planning the expansion of the rapid transit system in the New York metropolitan area.

The Metropolitan Street Railway Company, operators of many trolley lines in Manhattan and the Bronx, proposed a subway system running from the Battery to the Bronx along the East and West Sides of Manhattan in 1904. The East Side line would be built along William Street, New Bowery,1 and 3rd Avenue; the West Side line would be built along 7th, 8th, or 10th Avenues and Greenwich Street. The lines would operate along the New York Central Railroad’s Putnam Branch to Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.2

The IRT responded to the Metropolitan’s proposal as it did with other competitors: by purchasing the company, on December 22, 1905. They had leased the 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 9th Avenue elevated lines from the Manhattan Railway Company in 1902 for a period of 999 years.3

The Board of Rapid Transit Commissioners (RTC) and its chief engineers, William Barclay Parsons and George S. Rice, addressed the need for trunk lines on the East Side. Parsons considered building a north–south line on the East Side, and studied the avenues east of Madison Avenue in 1903. He ruled out 2nd and 3rd Avenues because of the presence of elevated lines:

An examination of the traffic returns of the Second and Third avenue elevated railways shows that the passengers per station on the Third avenue line are more than twice as numerous as those on the Second avenue line, and that the bulk of the travel on the Third avenue line comes from points along or west of it. A line west of Third avenue, or under Lexington Avenue, for instance, would thus supply the most urgently (p.200) demanded transportation facilities, and would best serve to relieve the present congestion on the most crowded elevated line on the east side.4

Parsons also saw an advantage to building a 1st Avenue line. More residential and business growth would be coming and this street offered the most direct route all the way downtown.5

Parsons and Rice both saw the role the 2nd and 3rd Avenue Els were playing in their service areas. They knew service demand would grow. The two RTC plans from 1905 called for lines on 1st, 3rd, and Lexington Avenues from Lower Manhattan to the Bronx, connecting with lines to be constructed in that borough.

Many RTC proposals were authorized for construction, easing the way for subsequent plans to become reality. When the New York State Public Service Commission began to supervise transit planning in 1907, its plans would continue to include the 1st and 3rd Avenue lines, but other streets were studied, too. The PSC and the IRT considered a line along Madison Avenue. The PSC’s Tri-Borough Plan called for the construction of a line along Broadway and the length of Lexington Avenue, independent of the original IRT line to the Bronx, running the length of Lexington Avenue and splitting off to run along the Pelham and Jerome Avenue lines.

The IRT wanted to run to Brooklyn, using tracks to be built over the Manhattan Bridge and along 4th Avenue. As its existing subway line was built through downtown Brooklyn, space was left for connections with both the 4th Avenue and Manhattan Bridge lines and a line planned for Lafayette Avenue.6 Knowing that the RTC’s proposed lines were authorized for construction contributed to the IRT thinking the Lexington Avenue route was better than the one along Madison Avenue. IRT President Theodore F. Shonts outlined his reasoning to the PSC on July 14, 1910:

Lexington Avenue can be tunneled at once, because legal consents have been obtained and all other legal conditions fulfilled, thus avoiding a delay of many months,

Building the Line That Almost Never Was

Figure 9-1. The PSC’s 1909 map for the 1st Avenue line.

(p.201) possibly of two years, in acquiring the right to use Madison Avenue, and, in addition, better physical connections can be made between the present subway in Park Avenue and a new subway in Lexington Avenue.

… Lexington Avenue better divided that portion of the City between Central Park and [the] East River than Madison Avenue, which lies only one block east of the Park, where the residents are not so much in need of subway service as are the more crowded residents nearer to Lexington Avenue, and the Lexington Avenue extension will also give better facilities for the Grand Central Depot, the Belmont Tunnel [which would be used by the Flushing line beginning in 1915],7 and the Hudson and Manhattan tunnels, when constructed.8

When the Subway Committee of the Board of Estimate proposed the Dual System contracts, this line had evolved into the eastern trunk of the IRT “H,” the route of the Lexington Avenue line as we know it from Lower Manhattan to the Bronx.9

With work on the Lexington Avenue and 7th Avenue lines underway, consideration was given to additional trunk lines. Daniel L. Turner included two Manhattan lines in the Transit Construction Commission plan of 1920. He proposed an East Side line from the Harlem River to the Battery along Madison Avenue, 5th Avenue, Greene Street, and Church Street, with connections to lines traveling to the other boroughs. Turner called for the line in his plan to be built primarily with six tracks: “The Fourth Avenue–Lexington Avenue line is now heavily overcrowded. The neighborhood around the Grand Central Terminal area is rapidly building up. Large increases in hotel facilities are being planned. Numerous extensive office building projects are taking form. In a relatively short time the existing subway will be wholly unable to meet the transit requirements of the East Side of Manhattan and in particular the Grand Central neighborhood. Consequently, to meet this pressing demand, the proposed Madison Avenue line will have to be placed under construction in the near future.”10

Turner saw the need for a greater expansion of West Side service, though. He proposed an eight-track line along 8th and Amsterdam Avenues. The State Transit Commission’s 1922 plan had two West Side routes but no East Side line. The first was the 8th and Amsterdam Avenue line to Washington Heights, intended to allow for a direct link with the Flushing line, not yet extended to Times Square. The second route would extend the BRT’s Broadway line north from the 57th Street Station via Central Park South, Central Park West, Central Park North, and 7th Avenue (now Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Boulevard). Track ramps were built as the Broadway line was constructed, anticipating an eventual northern extension.11

The NYS Transit Commission waited two years to propose an East Side line, but this line wouldn’t be part of the existing subway system. Instead, it was part of Turner’s Metropolitan Transit System plan, his concept for connecting commuter lines from (p.202) Long Island, New Jersey, and the northern suburbs. Turner called for a north–south line under a new street to be built between 2nd and 3rd Avenues.12

Mayor John F. Hylan issued a more ambitious plan affecting the East Side in August 1922. He called for a line from City Hall to the Bronx via 1st and Webster Avenues and Boston Road, with a southern extension to Brooklyn.

These plans were caught up in the battle for control of the subway between Hylan and the Transit Commission, which stymied efforts to expand the system. The Board of Estimate wasn’t willing to proceed; to the Transit Commission’s frustration, they waited until July 1, 1924, to take any action on new subways. That was when the Board of Transportation and its chairman, John H. Delaney, took the lead role in transit planning.

Hylan’s plan sparked interest among the business groups who saw a 1st Avenue line as the way to promote growth. “First Avenue more than any street in Manhattan lends itself to the speedy building of a subway at this time, and if a trunk line should be built through First Avenue (it is wide and has no overhead structure above Twenty-Third Street) relief would be quicker than from [the] building of a subway in any other part of the city,”13 Samuel J. Bloomingdale, president of the Bloomingdale Brothers department store, wrote to the Transit Commission.

With the motto “First Avenue Subway First,” Bloomingdale and other property owners formed the First Avenue Subway Association on April 7, 1924, at a luncheon at his store.14 They believed the 1st Avenue line would have more of an impact than the 6th Avenue line, which had a higher priority in the planning process.

Representatives of this group, along with business and realty groups from Manhattan and the Bronx, met with the BOT on July 25 to discuss the 1st Avenue line. They had petitions supporting the line and promised to share in construction costs. Delaney asked the representatives to meet with the property owners to determine how many of them would participate in an assessment plan. Newspaper articles over subsequent weeks ran stories on owners who were willing to join. However, the BOT’s plans for the IND didn’t include an East Side line.

The First Avenue Subway Association protested to Hylan and Delaney. “The east side has been entirely ignored in the plan which has been submitted,” Managing Director Irwin L. House wrote. “The congestion on the east side is as great as exists on the west side and the money that it will cost to build the west side route with the Fifty-Third Street extension [the Queens Boulevard line] could be used to greater advantage if expended on the east side.”15 Charles M. Estabrook, a transit engineer hired by the Association, feared that if the East Side was neglected then, it wouldn’t get an additional subway line for another twenty years.16

The Transit Commission got around to discussing expanded East Side subway service in June 1925. Writing in the June 12 edition of the New York Times, Major General John F. O’Ryan, a Commission member, discussed a plan for a subway line on 3rd (p.203) Avenue. Turner called for the demolition of the 3rd Avenue El and the widening of the street to allow for the construction of a six-track line. The line would run from the City Hall area to the Harlem River, with at least three tracks linking with the 2nd and 3rd Avenue Els. O’Ryan and Turner saw 3rd Avenue becoming a second Park Avenue.17 The Merchants Association of New York called for the construction of a 3rd Avenue line as part of an overall position paper opposing the IND.18 This was as far as the 3rd Avenue line proposal went, with the BOT controlling the planning process.

The lobbying efforts of the East Side groups paid off when news of the plans for the second phase of the IND appeared in April 1929. While the Utica Avenue–Crosstown line and the Nostrand Avenue line extension in Brooklyn drew the most attention, Delaney, trying to avoid making a definitive statement, did say that another route to be built was an East Side trunk line, operating along 2nd or 3rd Avenues, or a private right-of-way between those two streets. They favored 2nd Avenue but did not make a final choice.

The line would run from an unnamed downtown location to the East Bronx. Mayor James J. Walker requested the routing to allay the fears of East Bronx residents that they were neglected due to the BOT’s earlier approval of the extension of the IND Concourse line via Burke Avenue and Boston Road.19

A route was selected after two years of planning for the East Side Trunk Line. It was originally proposed to run from Houston Street to the Bronx via 2nd Avenue, connecting with the White Plains Road line. The mid-block routing was ruled out; land acquisition costs for the line and the new street were too steep. Building it on 3rd Avenue brought it too close to Lexington Avenue; 2nd Avenue brought it closer to areas not served by rapid transit.20 Connections to the 53rd Street and 6th Avenue–Houston Street lines were considered.

Within a few weeks, the route was extended south to Water and Wall Streets and split into three branches in the Bronx. The original connection to the White Plains Road line at 177th Street was retained. A second branch would run along Boston Road to the Northeast Bronx, linking to the Concourse line extension at Burke Avenue and the Curtiss-Wright Corporation’s planned airport. Responding to Mayor Walker’s concerns, a third branch would be built along Lafayette Avenue, serving the East Bronx. No track connection would be built at 53rd or Houston Streets, but there would be a spur line built along East 61st Street connecting the 2nd and 6th Avenue lines.

The response to where the routes would be built was largely positive. Samuel J. Bloomingdale spoke for the proposal and looked forward to when the elevated lines in his area would be gone:

The plans for the Second Avenue line will dramatize a development which parallels the growth of any community from frontier town to city …

(p.204) … When the east side is completely equipped with subsurface transit, the day will be at hand when added light will be given to the splendid new buildings on Second and Third Avenues, and the unsightly elevated structures will be merely on of the reminisces of the oldest inhabitants.21

Complaints in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens were directed toward the BOT’s plans for new elevated lines. There were concerns in Manhattan over building a route connecting the 2nd and 6th Avenue lines on East 61st Street, rather than 57th Street, a much wider thoroughfare. On the other hand, the 57th Street Committee of the Fifth Avenue Association spoke against running the branch along that street and supported using East 61st Street.22

The greatest desire was for work to begin. The First Avenue Association, a group of businesspeople and realtors that included Bloomingdale, organized to promote growth along the East Side, began a campaign to achieve that goal. A series of speakers supporting the proposed route attended the BOT’s public hearing on the trunk line on February 10, 1930. Philip J. Healey Inc. carried out preliminary engineering on 2nd Avenue from East 30th Street to the Harlem River.23

Delaney wanted to begin work on that line, as well as the Utica Avenue–Crosstown and South Queens Trunk Lines. However, finances affected the BOT. They needed to finish a component of the IND’s first phase, the 6th Avenue–Houston Street line, feeling

Building the Line That Almost Never Was

Figure 9-2. A diagram of the mezzanine of the 2nd Avenue station on the 6th Avenue–Houston Street line, showing the room left for the 2nd Avenue line to go through and a transfer station to be built.

(Courtesy of the New York Transit Museum Archives)

(p.205) it was necessary to relieve pressure on the 8th Avenue line.24 The 2nd Avenue station on this line was built to allow for a transfer with the 2nd Avenue line.

The 2nd Avenue line was included in the Board’s next capital plan, released in February 1932. The White Plains Road line connection was gone. A connecting line running on 34th Street between 2nd and 10th Avenues had been added, the only time the BOT proposed this. The Northeast and East Bronx lines were retained. It was still significant on paper, but that’s all it was—a plan on paper. Despite the ongoing efforts of the East Side and Bronx organizations to start work, no action could be taken.

The city government didn’t help. The Subway Committee of the First Avenue Association met with Acting Mayor Joseph V. McKee that fall to urge that he obtain a Reconstruction Finance Corporation loan for the line. McKee wanted to cut $50 million from the budget ($823 million in 2011 dollars, according to MeasuringWorth. com); he wouldn’t do anything that would add to the city’s obligations.25 Federal funding would later help to build the first phase of the IND in Fiorello H. La Guardia’s administration.

The start of work wasn’t imminent, but some people supported actions that led to the contraction of East Side transit service. Not wishing to wait for construction of the trunk line, the First Avenue Association advocated for demolition of the 2nd Avenue El. Their main effort throughout the 1930s seemed to be advocating for the demolition of the elevated, rather than building the subway.

The 2nd Avenue Trunk Line took on less importance for a time in the late 1930s. It ranked fourteenth on the Board’s 1938 capital priority list. The line itself shrank. While a connection from 2nd Avenue to the BMT’s Broadway line was proposed for the first time, the trunk line was now only a two-track line, with one route proposed for the Bronx, along the borough’s southern shore. Other lines took on greater importance in the Board’s capital plans. Proposals for the extensions of subway lines in Queens ranked higher.

The BOT’s capital plans from 1939 through 1941 brought on a change in the plans for 2nd Avenue. For the first time, there was a proposal to operate to Brooklyn, running under Water Street and Coenties Slip, connecting with the Fulton Street line at the Hoyt–Schermerhorn Street station.26 Construction of the 2nd Avenue line to Brooklyn and southern Queens remained a priority for many years.

One capital budget item ranked higher by the BOT was demolishing the 6th Avenue El. The city government was listening to the groups calling for the demolition of the els. Comptroller Joseph V. McGoldrick announced that the demolition of the 2nd, 6th, and 9th Avenue and Fulton Street elevated lines would be in the 1939 capital budget.

The BOT had wanted to demolish the 6th Avenue Elevated for years to facilitate construction of the 6th Avenue subway. It would be difficult building even if the el weren’t there, as it needed to be built around the Hudson Tubes below 33rd Street and above (p.206) and below other tunnels and pipelines along the length of the street. The Transit Commission considered the demolition at a hearing on September 29, 1930.

The IRT and the Bronx Chamber of Commerce opposed this. McKee, then Aldermanic president, opposed building new elevated lines, but he also opposed this action: “While I believe that everything should be done to enhance the value of real estate in our city, when there is any question between real estate value and the convenience of the people, I prefer to take my stand on the side of the people.”27 McKee thought the 8th Avenue line should be completed before demolition started. The BOT would have to wait.

The Board of Estimate authorized demolition on August 3, 1938. The Transport Workers Union opposed this, fearing the loss of jobs, but had little help. The last train ran on the evening of December 4 and demolition began. Joseph P. Day auctioned off the structural steel.28

Attention turned to the other elevated lines. The Transit Commission held a hearing on October 26, 1939, attended by a large group of civic and business group members and elected officials from the Bronx and Queens and the Transport Workers Union. Assistant Corporation Counsel Leo H. Brown made the city’s case for demolition. Council Member Joseph Kinsley criticized any effort to reduce rail transit service in the Bronx. John Gannon of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce stated that demolition “without adequate substitute transportation is contrary to the public good. There can be no justification for any procedure which will add to the already overcrowded East and West Bronx subways.”29

The hearing continued on October 27. Brown again spoke, showing how bus service could replace elevated service. Charles V. Halley noted the lack of alternatives to elevated service: “I believe that before the Transit Commission gives the City the right to demolish these two elevated lines, which are admittedly antiquated and an eyesore, but still useful, some definite guarantee should be made as to a substitute for the people of the Bronx.”30

Despite those objections, the Transit Commission approved demolition on February

21, 1940. George F. Mand of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce protested. “The decision of the of the Transit Commission as regards demolition of the Second and Ninth Avenue elevated structures is astounding and will meet with the general condemnation of the people of the Bronx,” Mand stated in a press release. “… They intend to crowd people into already overtaxed lines or otherwise inconvenience them. And why?”31

The Board of Estimate took up the demolition plan. Despite a huge crowd of Bronx residents and businesspeople and members of the Transport Workers Union who showed up on March 14, 1940—not everyone could be admitted to City Hall—demolition was approved. Bronx Borough President James J. Lyons and Manhattan Borough President Stanley M. Isaacs cast the only dissenting votes after a public hearing that lasted more than five hours.

(p.207) The Bronx Chamber of Commerce and fifty affiliated groups took the demolition plan to court, but Justice Edward S. Dore of the State Appellate Division ruled against their application for an injunction on June 9. Mayor La Guardia personally began demolition on the uptown section of the 2nd Avenue El on February 17, 1941.

The Board of Estimate voted to end service on the rest of the 2nd Avenue El on May 28, 1942. Bronx Borough President Lyons and Queens Borough President James A. Burke cast negative votes. Burke set off fireworks after Manhattan Borough President Edgar J. Nathan, Jr., said scrap metal from the elevated structure should be used as part of the national defense effort. Burke implied that scrap metal from the 6th Avenue Elevated line had been sold to Japan, which used it for military purposes.

Burke wanted to continue 2nd Avenue El service over the Queensboro Bridge, where it connected with the Flushing and Astoria lines. He knew this was an important service to his constituents that wouldn’t be replaced if the el were demolished. A decade would pass before BOT proposals called for 2nd Avenue subway service into northern Queens.

Burke was also protesting the point made that opposing demolition was unpatriotic since it kept scrap metal from being used for the war effort. It didn’t quite have the result he wanted. Stanley Isaacs, now a member of the City Council, protested. “I am going to inform the Borough President of Queens that at my request, when the contract for the demolition of the Sixth Avenue Elevated was considered in December, 1938, I asked the board to include in that contract a prohibition against the export of that metal,” Isaacs said. “First, because of a present loss to the city, there were alternate clauses put in that contract, but later at my assistance the contract provided that not one ounce of that steel could be exported to Japan or to any one else.”32

“To my own personal knowledge, Mr. Isaacs stated the exact facts,” said Delaney. “I investigated them on behalf of the Board of Transportation, on the assertions that have been bandied about from one orator’s list to another. There never has been one pound shipped to Japan, of either the Sixth Avenue or any other elevated. All of it has been sold to our own local companies.”33

Both Isaacs and Burke were correct. The BOT and city government hadn’t sold scrap metal from the 6th Avenue El to Japan or the other Axis powers—someone else had. Two years earlier, the Brooklyn Eagle investigated what happened to the 6th Avenue El’s steel. Borough President Isaacs’s resolution was in effect: the Harris Structural Steel Company, which did the demolition work, was restricted from selling the steel to a “foreign agency.” Accordingly, they sold it to the Bethlehem Steel Corporation.

The Eagle contacted Bethlehem: “No effort had been made to keep the 6th Ave. elevated steel apart from other scrap, and that sheets, plates, bars and girders made from the combined converted metal had gone to various destinations. Japan and the European countries, which before the [British] blockade, included Germany, were among Bethlehem’s best export customers at the time.”34

(p.208) Isaacs called the Eagle’s article “misleading and inaccurate,”35 but said that while Harris Structural Steel lived up to the terms of the contract, once Bethlehem converted it to other forms for export, it could have gone to Japan or Germany for military purposes,36 which was the point of the article.

When the Board of Estimate approved el demolition in Manhattan and Brooklyn on June 6, 1940, Isaacs again sought to bar export of the steel. Brooklyn Borough President John Cashmore offered a further amendment earmarking the scrap metal for sale to Great Britain and its allies. This resolution was enacted.

Lyons’s and Burke’s arguments in 1942 came to naught, although Delaney admitted that “there is no doubt that the people in Queens are going to be inconvenienced.”37 Demolition began on July 7, 1942, and was completed on September 30. The structural steel from the els was recycled and used to construct the Grumman Aircraft Corporation’s plant in Bethpage, New York, and to build Grumman’s F6F “Hellcat” fighter airplane.38

The fate of the scrap metal from the 6th Avenue El received further notoriety after e.e. cummings’s 1944 poem “plato told” was published (“it took a nipponized bit of the old sixth avenue el: in the top of his head: to tell him”). The use of the scrap metal from the other elevated lines in Manhattan and Brooklyn demolished in 1940 and 1942 has been forgotten or lumped in with what happened to the 6th Avenue El.

Some derived huge benefits from the demolition of the elevated. Alexander Nobler Cohen wrote in Fallen Transit, his study of the 2nd Avenue El and subway, that “property owners prophesized that demolishing the El would lead to a surge in real estate activity and a revitalization of the neighborhood.”39

2nd Avenue has changed, with high-rise office towers and apartment buildings replacing low-rise structures from Gramercy Park to East Harlem. The character of the retail properties changed as well. There was a spillover effect on adjoining streets, accelerating after the 3rd Avenue El service ended in 1955.

But the 2nd Avenue El’s riders didn’t benefit. They had a longer walk to crowd onto the Lexington Avenue line. Demolition affected the entire transit system. The tracks on the Queensboro Bridge providing a connection for the Flushing and Astoria lines were gone as well. Burke’s and Lyons’s fears were correct. Removal of the tracks from the bridge removed access to the East Side that Queens riders need. It took operational flexibility away from both lines, now necessary with the huge growth in population in northwestern and northeastern Queens. It further overloaded the Lexington Avenue, Flushing, and Astoria lines.

Cohen noted that customers of the elevated lines had little support. The First Avenue Association, professing to speak for the needs of the area, didn’t want to wait for the work on the subway to begin to demolish the el. State Senator Frederic René Coutert and Assembly Members Stephen J. Jarema and MacNeil Mitchell (two decades later, Mitchell, as a state senator, investigated what happened to funding ostensibly ear-marked (p.209) for the 2nd Avenue subway), representing the East Side in Albany, filed legislation facilitating demolition. Elected officials and civic and business groups from Queens and the Bronx wanted to save the 2nd Avenue El, but had little support from their colleagues and risked being called unpatriotic while the Second World War was in progress.

With the nation’s resources devoted to fighting the war, the BOT had fewer resources to devote to subway expansion. All they could do was plan for when victory was achieved. In a letter to Louis Cohen, chair of the City Council’s Finance Committee, BOT Secretary William Jerome Daly had reported that while no funding was available for construction, they were planning for 2nd Avenue line service to the Bronx, running eastward along Lafayette and East Tremont Avenues to Throggs Neck, with connections to the Concourse line at either 161st Street or Claremont Parkway, a connection to the Dyre Avenue line via a spur at Hunts Point Avenue and 173rd Street, or a connection to the Pelham line in Hunts Point.40

In his annual message to the City Council on January 5, 1944, Mayor La Guardia said:

The preparation of engineering plans for the Second Avenue Subway has not been interrupted. The work continues. The engineering plan entails an expenditure of $500,000 out of a total spent for engineering plans on the projects mentioned above [new rolling stock, platform lengthening, etc.] of $3,400,000. The plans for the first ten sections of the Second Avenue subway up to 125th Street will be ready by the end of this year. The plans will be available and ready when financial conditions permit. I do not anticipate that it will be in the immediate future. The total estimated cost of the Second Avenue line is $250,000,000 [$5.6 billion in 2011 dollars]. With extensions now under study, the total new system exceeds $360,000,000 [$8.16 billion in 2011 dollars].41

2nd Avenue would become the key component of all capital plans. The BOT believed the primary need was for a new trunk line accommodating additional riders from the other boroughs instead of an outward extension of the subway system.

The first postwar plan, issued in May 1942, was meant to be implemented between 1944 and 1948. The 2nd Avenue line would be built in two phases. The first, extending from Coenties Slip to the Bronx via 2nd Avenue to Water Street, received top priority. The Bronx routing wasn’t specified. The Brooklyn routing, connecting with the Fulton Street line, was ranked nineteenth on the Board’s list. In August 1944, BOT General Superintendent Philip E. Pheifer prepared a service plan to be implemented once 2nd Avenue and other improvements being proposed were completed. Pheifer’s plan called for a realignment of many IND and BMT lines, with at least fifty-six trains per hour operating along 2nd Avenue.42


Building the Line That Almost Never Was

Figure 9-3. The 2nd Avenue line in a 1948 map.

A branch route into northern Queens and a connection to the Concourse line in the Bronx would be added in subsequent years. (Courtesy of the New York Transit Museum Archives)

Pheifer also discussed a new connection to be built in Lower Manhattan. Links were planned between the 2nd Avenue, 6th Avenue–Houston Street, and Nassau Street lines, and the BMT trains crossing the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges.

A second postwar plan was released in August 1945. The Manhattan routing was unchanged. A specific Bronx route was proposed, running along the borough’s southern (p.211) shore to Harding Avenue in Throggs Neck. There was no Brooklyn route proposed, although the Board planned for service to that borough. Subsequent proposals built on Pheifer’s 1944 plan.

Both William O’Dwyer, who succeeded Fiorello La Guardia as mayor in January 1946, and General Charles P. Gross, whom La Guardia appointed to replace John H. Delaney late in 1945, believed 2nd Avenue was the key component of any subway expansion plan, one of the few issues on which O’Dwyer and Gross agreed. Gross saw 2nd Avenue as necessary to relieve the overloading that the north–south lines were experiencing in Manhattan. He knew building the line was not possible without increasing BOT revenue, either through the farebox or tax subsidies.

Mayor O’Dwyer would take the steps toward raising the fare to provide more revenue for the operation of the system, but he first looked to the state government for financial support and an exemption from the city’s debt limit to sell bonds to meet capital needs. He used a new subway expansion plan featuring 2nd Avenue as a selling point.

The plan was the brainchild of Colonel Sidney H. Bingham, a longtime BOT and IRT engineer and planner O’Dwyer appointed to the Board.43 Released to the public on December 14, 1947, Bingham’s plan was the most ambitious proposal for 2nd Avenue. He called for a six-track line to run from Lower Manhattan to the Bronx. Expanding on Pheifer’s plan, he proposed the Chrystie Street connection, using three different East River crossings, the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges and the Montague Street Tunnel. It would establish connections with eight separate BMT branches serving Brooklyn and Queens, the 6th and 8th Avenue lines in Manhattan, and the Pelham line in the Bronx, which would be converted to an IND / BMT line, enabling more Lexington Avenue line trains to serve the White Plains Road, Jerome Avenue, and Dyre Avenue lines.44 Like Pheifer did, Bingham prepared a service plan identifying the existing routes that would run along 2nd Avenue.45

Bingham’s concept for 2nd Avenue had more connections with other lines than it had in previous plans. BOT Chairman William Reid46 discussed why so much emphasis was placed on that line. “The need for a new Second Avenue Subway has not been sufficiently emphasized,” Reid told the New York Times in 1948. “That line is not needed primarily to handle Manhattan traffic but to relieve the congestion caused by numerous feeder lines going into the older Manhattan lines.”

“… What we really need is not more subway lines to serve the city’s outlying areas, but a new Manhattan line to absorb the feeders that pack into the existing Manhattan lines,” he continued. “The present situation is like taking four pipes ten inches in diameter and jamming them into one pipe ten inches in diameter. A new Second Avenue line is the answer to that.”47

Emphasis in transit planning had been consistent with Daniel L. Turner’s belief in extending the system ahead of population growth. The way Queens, Brooklyn, and the (p.212)

Building the Line That Almost Never Was

Figure 9-4. Colonel Sidney H. Bingham.

(Yonkers Herald Statesman)

Building the Line That Almost Never Was

Figure 9-5. A Board of Transportation diagram from 1949 showing the 2nd Avenue line plan.

In subsequent years a branch line to Queens would be added.

(p.213) Bronx were growing justified that. But great strain had been placed on the system’s interior, the Manhattan trunk lines.

Financial constraints restricted the BOT. The city could borrow up to 10 percent of the average total assessed real estate value over the previous four years for capital projects. Mayor O’Dwyer sought an exemption from the state legislature to finance capital work. An amendment to the state constitution was needed, which required authorization by state voters in a referendum after being approved twice by the legislature. An initial vote failed in 1948, but it was approved in 1949 and 1950. It would go to the voters in 1951.

On August 29, 1950, a hearing was held in the office of Manhattan Borough President Robert F. Wagner, Jr., concerning a BOT proposal to demolish the section of the 3rd Avenue El between Chatham Square and the Battery. Bingham, who became BOT chairman in January after Reid became deputy mayor, said the structure was outdated and cost too much to upgrade. The BOT used their own inaction to maintain the infrastructure as an excuse for demolition. Staten Island Borough President Cornelius A. Hall and Council Member Isaacs opposed the proposal, citing its impact on their constituents due to the overcrowding of other subway lines. Another council member, Robert Weisberger, and Rev. Arthur G. Keane of the Roman Catholic Church of St. James spoke for demolition. Rev. Keane attacked demolition opponents, calling them people with “very beautiful sunburns and $100 suits.” He asked if they wanted “private cabs to their doors” for their ten-cent fare.48 The BOT and Board of Estimate agreed; 3rd Avenue El service to South Ferry ended on December 22.

Two days after the hearing, Mayor O’Dwyer resigned to become ambassador to Mexico, and City Council President Vincent H. Impellitteri would be elected to serve the rest of his term. Impellitteri campaigned for the bond issue and the 2nd Avenue line. The next BOT capital plan was released on June 22, 1950, to be financed by the 1951 bond issue. The 2nd Avenue line was the lead item, with a branch to Queens from East 76th Street planned to use the Long Island Rail Road’s right-of-way to link up with either their Rockaway Beach or Port Washington lines.

The city’s financial status continued to raise concerns for the BOT’s plans. Comptroller Lazarus Joseph warned against adding new debt, including the bonds authorized by the 1951 constitutional amendment. City Budget Director (and future comptroller and mayor) Abraham D. Beame stated that the city could allow for $235 million ($2.86 billion in 2011 dollars) to pay for all permanent capital improvements, but he thought financial issues needed to be dealt with first.49 This allowed for work on smaller projects, but it affected projects like 2nd Avenue. Bingham said he would push for the allocation of funding above what Joseph and Beame said was available. It was questionable whether the Board of Estimate would authorize such expenditures, given the city’s financial concerns and the short-term needs of the system.

(p.214) The BOT final capital priority list in July 1952 called for eight routes and was approved by the Board of Estimate that fall. The main feature of these proposals was the latest iteration of the 2nd Avenue subway with the Chrystie Street connection. It also allowed for connections to the Concourse and Pelham lines in the Bronx and an option for further connections into Queens from Woodside.

The expansion of the BMT’s DeKalb Avenue station and the rebuilding of the track and switches systems north and south of the station took priority over the rest of the line. This was crucial for the operation of BMT trains through downtown Brooklyn, as it resulted in easier movement of trains in and out of Brooklyn. Over the long term, it would facilitate movement through the Chrystie Street connection to 2nd Avenue, but it required the closing of the Myrtle Avenue station, the next stop north of DeKalb Avenue, one of several stations closures that took place in that era.50

The ambitions of the summer of 1952 didn’t survive the fall. The BOT expressed concern over their ability to move ahead. There was, a Board spokesman told the Times, a shortage of engineers necessary to carry out design work: “Scores of these professional men have left [the BOT] for better paying posts in the outside business world. There may be some delays in our construction program if this outside competition continues.”51 The New York City Transit Authority became the agency operating the subway system after 1952 and continued to issue plans for the expansion of the subway system.

The TA established its own capital priorities in July 1953, which didn’t include steps to maintain or upgrade the structure of the 3rd Avenue El. Instead, they were planning to end el service in Manhattan. It would cost $1.5 million a year to operate ($12.6 million in 2011 dollars),52 and this didn’t include what was needed to upgrade the seventyfive-year-old structure. Since the spring of 1952, there had been no service on the el on weekends, holidays, or at night. TA engineers and executives believed that the structure had a useful life of only another five years. Service on the branch of the el running from Chatham Square to City Hall ended with one last trip at 6:49 p.m. on December 31, 1953. The end of the rest of the line in Manhattan was coming.

When the TA issued its capital plan, its president, Hugh J. Casey, told the Board of Estimate that much of the money provided by the 1951 bond issue had gone to other projects. Additional funding would be needed for 2nd Avenue. The TA wanted to build that line but had no idea as to when work would actually begin, despite hopes for a 1957 start.

The 3rd Avenue Elevated ran between Manhattan and the Bronx until 1955. Following on the TA’s plan, Robert Moses, as city construction coordinator, advised Robert F. Wagner, the new mayor, that the el should be demolished below 149th Street. Bronx groups protested to Wagner, but he wouldn’t take a position: “The [TA] is given sole purpose to determine whether any transit facilities shall or shall not continue to operate.”53

(p.215) Sentiment against demolition in the Bronx wasn’t unanimous. The Bronx Board of Trade, for one, supported it: “Faced with dwindling patronage, diminishing revenues, mounting deficits and the prospects of extending more than $80,000,000 [$905 million in 2011 dollars] to rehabilitate the railroad structure, the TA has no alternative … if it is to avoid an increase in fare.”54

The TA held hearings at their headquarters in Brooklyn on June 4 and 5. Twelve speakers from the Bronx opposed demolition; the Board of Trade spoke for it, with Joseph F. Addonizio, its executive director, expressing the opinion that demolition might accelerate work on the 2nd Avenue line. The majority of demolition proponents came from Manhattan.

On July 15 the TA Board voted four to one in favor of demolition. Rehabilitation of the el’s structure would cost approximately $80 million; the TA would achieve an annual savings of $2.4 million ($27.1 million in 2011 dollars) by demolishing it.55 The end of service was scheduled for December 31; legal and legislative efforts delayed the last day of operation until May 12, 1955. After service ended, the elevated structure was dismantled. As with the earlier elevated lines, the structural steel was recycled, in this case for the third tube of the Lincoln Tunnel.56

One part of the 2nd Avenue line the TA wanted to start work on was the Chrystie Street connection. This would be the link between the 6th Avenue–Houston Street line and the BMT lines crossing the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges. Grand Street would be the one station in that segment. The TA asked the city to fund this project on July 9, but the start of work on the main part of the line was no longer on the horizon.

Charles L. Patterson, who replaced Casey as TA chairman in July 1955, issued a report at a Board of Estimate hearing on September 22. Patterson told the Board members that the start of construction of the 2nd Avenue line was “about ten years off ”57—working on the existing system and dealing with the TA’s financial issues would come first.

The report, which responded to Board inquiries concerning the extension of the IRT’s Nostrand Avenue line in Brooklyn, made it clear: “No new lines or extensions should be undertaken until the major portion of the modernization program has been completed, and such construction should only be undertaken if it can shown to be self-sustaining.”58

This was frustrating to the representatives of the 2nd Avenue line’s service area. Council Member Isaacs and a Queens colleague, Robert E. Barnes, criticized the use of the funding ostensibly earmarked for 2nd Avenue to maintain the existing system. Barnes called it a “disgraceful double cross”; he wrote to State Senate Majority Leader Walter J. Mahoney and Assembly Speaker Oswald D. Heck, asking for a legislative (p.216) investigation into how the bond issue money had been spent.59 State Senator MacNeil Mitchell60 sought authorization for a hearing on what had happened to the $500 million from the 1951 bond issue ($4.33 billion in 2011 dollars).

Twenty years earlier as an Assembly member, Mitchell supported demolishing the 2nd Avenue El. As a state senator, he was interested in what happened to the money meant to pay for the subway that would replace it. Mitchell soon found that people knew bond issue funds were never specifically earmarked for one subway line. “Where the $500,000,000 or most of it went—nearly $400,000,000 has already been spent or committed—is one of the worst-kept ‘secrets’ in city affairs,” the New York Times editorialized. There had been “no breach of faith with the people.”61

Mitchell’s hearing was held on March 8, 1957. Patterson made it clear that the 2nd Avenue line wouldn’t be built with funds from the 1951 bond issue. Other system needs—the purchase of the Rockaway Beach line and its integration into the subway system, the completion of the Fulton Street subway, the DeKalb Avenue project, the connection of the Dyre Avenue and White Plains Road and the Culver and Smith Street lines, platform lengthening, subway car purchases, and other work needed to rehabilitate an aging system—took precedence. “It would have been a tragic mistake for the city to have embarked on the trunk line program [the 2nd Avenue line] as planned at the expense of denying capital funds for the improvement and modernization of the existing rapid transit systems,” Patterson testified.62

With that, aside from the Chrystie Street / DeKalb Avenue section, most of the 2nd Avenue line went into the “state of suspended animation” John H. Delaney told James J. Lyons the Burke Avenue line was in during the 1940s. The Board of Estimate allocated $10,227,400 ($100 million in 2011 dollars) on October 25, 1957, to begin work on Chrystie Street; ground was broken on November 25. Mayor Wagner announced that the Grand Street station would be built using ramps and a minimum amount of stairs to provide access for the senior citizens who lived in the area.63

The construction of the Chrystie Street connection required a northern subway extension. The TA announced plans to extend the 6th Avenue line north to 57th Street on January 30, 1962. Although this extension would be used for a future system extension, its purpose then was to handle the additional number of trains coming up 6th Avenue from Chrystie Street without running to Upper Manhattan or Queens.

Chrystie Street line service began on November 26, 1967, completing the work started in the 1950s with the reconstruction of the track system at DeKalb Avenue. It completed the IND / BMT merger that began with the Queens Boulevard / 60th Street connection in Long Island City and the Culver / Smith Street connection in Brooklyn in the 1950s. Two 6th Avenue line routes used Chrystie Street to reach the Manhattan Bridge and run along the Brighton Beach and West End lines in Brooklyn; a new 6th Avenue route, the KK line, used Chrystie Street and the Williamsburg Bridge to connect with the Broadway–Brooklyn line. This was the most significant change in subway service (p.217) in decades. The opening of the Chrystie Street line led to other changes in the system. Four new routes began service, and five others experienced significant revisions.

In a span of about five weeks in 1968, two plans were released that harked back to the BOT’s old plans for 2nd Avenue. The first was a report for the TA by the engineering firm of Coverdale and Colpitts. They revived the plan to use all of the New York, Westchester, and Boston Railway’s right-of-way, connecting it with the Dyre Avenue line at East 180th Street. It would branch off on Burke Avenue to the Co-op City housing development, being built on land meant for Curtiss Airport. Another branch would connect with the Pelham line, bringing back part of the BOT’s plans from the 1940s and 1950s.

A third branch would use part of what remained of the 3rd Avenue El, running along Washington Avenue to 198th Street, where it would connect with the el and run to Gun Hill Road. The el segment south of 198th Street would be demolished. In Manhattan, Coverdale and Colpitts proposed connecting the 63rd Street line with the 2nd Avenue, 6th Avenue, and Broadway lines.

On February 28, 1968, the newly formed Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which included the TA, the suburban railroads, and the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, issued its “New Routes” plan, succeeding Coverdale and Colpitts’s proposals.64 “New Routes” brought back components of past BOT and TA plans, and incorporated some of the Coverdale and Colpitts schemes. The 2nd Avenue line was included, starting in Lower Manhattan, linking with the Chrystie Street line at Grand Street, which would be rebuilt as a four-track station, and running into the Bronx. In the Bronx, it would run on the unused part of the New York, Westchester, and Boston Railway’s right-of-way to link with the Dyre Avenue line. A branch from the south would connect with the 63rd Street line going toward Queens; one from the north would connect with 63rd Street, going to the 6th Avenue and Broadway lines.

The MTA wanted to avoid the problems of the BOT and the TA. Dr. William J. Ronan, the first MTA chairman, stressed the need to move ahead. “We must act decisively and with courage, recognizing that years of study and review have already helped forge and temper this program,” Ronan told the Board of Estimate on August 12. “The plan before you is practical and ‘doable’ and meets present and future needs. … We are little interested in stocking libraries with more studies. We want to bring people the transportation they deserve.”65

That didn’t happen. City Council Member Robert A. Low wanted the line built on 1st Avenue. Robert W. Haack, the New York Stock Exchange’s president, and Edmund F. Wagner, the president of the Downtown–Lower Manhattan Association, wanted it extended to the Battery.66 The Downtown–Lower Manhattan Association proposed an extension around the tip of Manhattan to serve the Battery Park City development, then in the planning stage.67


Building the Line That Almost Never Was

Figure 9-6. The Grand Street station on the Chrystie Street line, a two-track station, would be rebuilt to handle four tracks, allowing for transfers to the 2nd Avenue line.

(Courtesy of the New York Transit Museum Archives)

Shortly after Ronan’s speech, three city agencies asked for changes in the plan for 2nd Avenue. The City Planning Commission, the Transportation Administration, and the Bureau of the Budget issued a joint report to the Board of Estimate on August 14 calling on the MTA to build it with two tracks and to construct it using the “deep tunnel” method.68 On September 18 Mayor John V. Lindsay and the five borough presidents called for this to be done with limited stops.

The Board of Estimate approved the overall plan on September 20, but 2nd Avenue had a long way to go. Funding issues weren’t resolved and there were more objections to its routing. Manhattan Community Board No. 4, acting on a request by Borough President Percy E. Sutton, held a public hearing at City Hall on March 4, 1969. Council Member Low and U.S. Representative James H. Scheuer led the speakers.

Scheuer opposed the construction of a “two-track high-speed line” and called for inclusion of local tracks.69 Low felt that the BOT’s original plans didn’t anticipate the growth that 1st Avenue and the area to the east experienced.70 Jack Sissman of the New York State Liberal Party called the 2nd Avenue line “a rich man’s express, circumventing the Lower East Side with its complexes of high-rise low- and middle-income housing and slums in favor of a silk stocking route.”71

The issue of Lower East Side service took on a life of its own. Borough President Sutton and Representative Edward I. Koch (eight years before becoming mayor) called on the MTA to reroute the line or run a spur line to serve that area. Ronan questioned the cost and benefits of the plan.72 The calls for an eastward routing had Mayor Lindsay’s support. His transportation administrator, Constantine Sidamon-Eristoff,73 called on the MTA to reconsider its plan for the 2nd Avenue line’s downtown routing: “If this route is reasonable and financially feasible, it should be done. … Our preliminary work shows that shifting the route to Avenue A or B would add only a minute to travel (p.219) time, serve additional population and be fairly close in cost to [the] direct line recommended by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.”74

The Board of Estimate scheduled a hearing for July 24 to review the MTA’s plans. Sutton was pessimistic about his plan being adopted: “It would seem that the Wall Street boys with their paid ads have done an effective job of routing and have defeated the little people of the Lower East Side.”75 That feeling was groundless. After a seven-hour hearing, the Board rejected the MTA’s plan. Only Queens Borough President Sidney Leviss and Brooklyn Borough President Abe Stark76 voted for it.

The MTA reconsidered its plans for 2nd Avenue, a process lasting through the end of 1969. Comptroller Abraham Beame grew frustrated with the time it was taking to come up with a new plan and issued a statement on January 21, 1970, criticizing the MTA for the delay. Lindsay’s office also pressed for action. The MTA issued a plan for a spur route a week later. Nicknamed the “Cuphandle,” it would run east from the 2nd Avenue line at Houston Street to Avenue C and then turn north and run to meet the 14th Street–Canarsie line.

That may have ended that issue, but another issue was festering. Ever since Lindsay and the borough presidents called for what Representative Scheuer later disparaged as a “two-track, high-speed line,” there were concerns in Manhattan over the number of Midtown and Upper East Side stops. It became a full-fledged controversy in September 1970. Ronan stated that no station locations had been set and hearings on the locations

Building the Line That Almost Never Was

Figure 9-7. Senator Jacob K. Javits, Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, U.S. Secretary of Transportation John Volpe, Mayor John V. Lindsay, Congressman Edward I. Koch, and MTA Chairman William J. Ronan break ground for the 2nd Avenue subway on October 27, 1972.

(Photo courtesy of the New York Transit Museum Archives)

Building the Line That Almost Never Was

Figure 9-8. A view of the 2nd Avenue line segment built between East 99th and East 105th Streets.

(Photo by the author)

would be held, but John T. O’Neill, the TA’s chief engineer, stated there would be six stations, located at 34th, 48th, 57th, 86th, 106th, and 125th Streets.

The absence of stations at 72nd and 96th Streets drew protests. Sutton held a hearing on the issue on October 6. Ronan declined to attend, although Justin Feldman, an MTA representative, stated that no decision had been made concerning the number or location of stations. Assembly Member Stephen C. Hansen expressed the belief the station locations were being kept secret until it would be too late to alter the plans.

This controversy went on for close to a year. A station was added at 72nd Street, which failed to satisfy many East Side residents. “While we are gratified that the MTA now accepts our previous request for a station at 72nd Street, which will serve the important New York Hospital Medical Center, we cannot understand why the MTA fails to provide such an equal facility for the Metropolitan Hospital Center at 96th Street,” William J. Diamond, the chairman of Manhattan Community Board No. 8, said at an MTA hearing at Hunter College on September 15, 1971.

“… It is important to remember that in the early 1940s before most of the large high rise apartment houses were built on Second and Third Avenues, that the area between 34th Street and 126th Street had been served by the Second Avenue elevated line and (p.221) the Third Avenue elevated line in addition to the Lexington Avenue IRT and trolley car service,” he continued. “… With the removal of these two lines the east side lost a total of 28 mass transit stations. … Even with the addition of a 96th Street station, the east side will still have only one-third the number of subway stations that it had thirty years ago when its population was much less than it is today.”77

Ronan announced on October 3 that a station would be built at 96th Street. The question of how the construction of 2nd Avenue and the other “New Routes” routes would be paid for remained to be answered.

Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller thought he had the answer. In March 1971, he announced he would seek approval for a $2.5 billion sale of bonds on the ballot in November ($13.9 billion in 2011 dollars). The money derived from the bond sale would help to finance the “New Routes” projects as well as other transit and highway projects across the state.

Despite a heavy advertising campaign for the bond issue, it failed at the ballot box by nine hundred thousand votes, attracting little support in New York City. Even though the bond issue would finance expansion of the transit system and maintain fares, many remembered the promises made in 1951 and forgot the work that was done.

The 2nd Avenue project continued while other projects withered away and the fare went from thirty to thirty-five cents. Money remained from a 1967 bond issue, and federal funding was available. On June 21, 1972, President Richard M. Nixon announced that a $25 million78 Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA) grant would be provided to the MTA for 2nd Avenue.

Governor Rockefeller, Mayor Lindsay, Senator Jacob K. Javits, Borough President Sutton, and U.S. Secretary of Transportation John Volpe broke ground for one of the two uptown segments of the line at a ceremony at 2nd Avenue and East 103rd Street on October 27.79 The MTA celebrated the groundbreaking at East 103rd Street by issuing a brochure, titled The Second Avenue Subway Line … The Line That Almost Never Was, tracing the history of the line back to Daniel L. Turner’s Transit Construction Commission plan of 1920. The uptown segments would run between East 99th and East 105th Streets and East 110th and East 120th Streets.

More changes were sought. Bronx Borough President Robert Abrams proposed a new routing that would have the line run eastward along Whitlock Avenue to serve the Parkchester housing development and then north to Co-op City.80

Work on 2nd Avenue proceeded slowly. Leftover parts of the 2nd Avenue El’s structure along with unmapped water and sewer lines and utility ducts were discovered. They weren’t on any street diagrams or blueprints, and these elements needed to be removed or relocated before heavy construction started.81

Another ceremony began work on a different 2nd Avenue segment that fall. Lindsay and Ronan broke ground at Chrystie Street and Canal Street for a segment that would run south under the Manhattan Bridge and adjacent to the new Confucius Plaza housing development to Chatham Square in Chinatown.

(p.222) The question of funding for the 2nd Avenue line and the other “New Routes” lines remained unanswered. Governor Rockefeller proposed another bond issue. Authorization for the sale of $3.4 billion in bonds ($18.3 billion in 2011 dollars) would be sought in November; $1.35 billion ($7.26 billion in 2011 dollars) would go toward the new subway lines and maintain the thirty-five-cent fare. New York City voters supported the bond issue this time, but it wasn’t enough to overcome opposition in the suburbs and upstate. Ronan still expected transit system expansion to proceed.

With construction of the three segments of the 2nd Avenue line underway with a 1981 expected completion date, the Department of City Planning and the Municipal Arts Society studied how to integrate development along 2nd Avenue and build stations on the subway line. Its view was that “the logic for locating new subway entrances in buildings and plazas is simple, straightforward, and clearly in the public interest. … The opportunity to carry such logic into effect came with the construction of the Second Avenue Subway. A new subway does not merely move masses of people from point to point but new pedestrian traffic and ‘opens up’ new territory as surely as the westward push of the railroad once did.”82 In their report, Humanizing Subway Entrances, the Second Avenue Study Group proposed zoning changes in the areas near stations, which would facilitate the construction of plazas and arcades where station entrances would be located.

Building the Line That Almost Never Was

Figure 9-9. The City Planning Commission wanted station entrances on the 2nd Avenue line built into plazas and arcades.

Areas along 2nd Avenue were zoned for that; buildings were erected to allow for the construction of entrances. An example is this plaza at East 33rd Street and 2nd Avenue. (Photo by the author)

(p.223) In the last week of 1973, as the Lindsay administration was winding down, the Board of Estimate enacted zoning regulations establishing “Transit Land Use Districts,” formalizing the study. Comptroller Abraham D. Beame, the incoming mayor, embraced this concept. With the new zoning regulations in effect, new buildings were erected in the Transit Land Use Districts with off-street areas for station entrances within property lines. These are still visible at many points along 2nd Avenue, and the zoning regulations remain in effect.

Mayor Beame, Governor Malcolm Wilson (who replaced Rockefeller after he resigned (he would later become vice president to Gerald Ford), and the MTA’s new chairman, David L. Yunich (who replaced Ronan in May 1974), officiated at a ceremony marking the start of work on a fourth segment in the East Village on July 25, 1974. This segment would be built between East 2nd and East 9th Streets. Bids would be opened for work on a fifth segment between East 50th Street and East 54th Street. “Planners have been beating around the mulberry bush with this line since 1920,” Yunich said. “It’s fundamental to the future development of New York if we want to entice business and manufacturers to come in. … It’s a gross injustice to refer to this as simply a Second Avenue line when in fact it is a new interborough system with connections to Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn.”83

Funding remained an issue. In October 1974, UMTA Administrator Frank C. Herringer warned against using federal funding to offset operating deficits: “I don’t think that we should structure a national transit program to save the 35-cent fare or any fare. I’d hate to see the capital program grind to a halt in order to maintain the 35-cent fare.”84

Budgetary concerns were wearing “New Routes” down. Yunich, Beame, and the Board of Estimate met on October 31 and announced that the 2nd Avenue line would be delayed until at least 1986.85

A week later, Yunich announced further delays. The completion dates for the “Cuphandle” line and routes in other boroughs were extended to the 1990s. Work on 2nd Avenue continued, but the line would not be completed until 1988. When asked if the new delays canceled some lines, Yunich said, “I think that when a project is put off that far, it’s a polite way of saying ‘not in our lifetime.’ ”86

Mayor Beame announced further delays to 2nd Avenue in 1974 and revealed that only part of the line would be built. Completion was now scheduled for 1992. Despite the work on the two line segments in East Harlem, the only part of the route to be into service would be the segment from Lower Manhattan to 63rd Street, connecting with the tunnel to Queens. Work continued on the 63rd Street line, which would eventually lead to the construction of the first 2nd Avenue segment.

Even that cutback might not be enough. On January 4, 1975, CPC Chairman John E. Zuccotti stated the city was $700 million short of the $2.5 billion ($10.5 billion in 2011 dollars) needed for capital work and fare stability. Then came the financial crisis that beset the city and state in the mid-1970s. On September 25, 1975, citing the lack of state (p.224)

Building the Line That Almost Never Was

Figure 9-10. Mayor Abraham D. Beame, Governor Malcolm Wilson, and MTA Chairman David L. Yunich breaking ground for the East Village segment of the 2nd Avenue subway on July 25, 1974.

(Photo courtesy of the New York Transit Museum Archives)

funding, Beame directed the MTA to cease work on the East 2nd Street–East 9th Street segment. The city financed this work anticipating reimbursement from the state, but none came. The East Harlem and Chinatown segments were completed, but the East Village segment was filled in and paved over.

A new effort was made for a transit line on the East Side of Manhattan in the late 1980s. Using a federal grant, the MTA undertook the Manhattan East Side Alternatives Study (MESA) in 1995. MESA looked at options including reviving 2nd Avenue, restoring trolley service (now called Light Rail Transit) to the East Side, creating a busway along 1st or 2nd Avenues, or improving the signal system of the Lexington Avenue line so that it could handle more trains.87

By 1999, MESA leaned toward a scaled-down version of 2nd Avenue, connecting with the 63rd Street line and running to 125th Street. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani supported it, although he wanted higher priority given to extending the Flushing line to the west to serve the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on West 34th Street and a proposed sports complex.88

The shortened 2nd Avenue line was opposed on the East Side and in the Bronx. A group of elected officials, led by Representatives Eliot L. Engel and Carolyn B. Maloney, Public Advocate Mark Green,89 and Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields wrote to MTA Chairman E. Virgil Conway, calling for a full-length line to be built. Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the New York State Assembly, also supported the full-length line.


Building the Line That Almost Never Was

Figure 9-11. The Lexington Avenue Station on the 63rd Street line was built to be a four track station with temporary tiled walls.

Wooden walls have been installed while the platform is rebuilt to create a transfer with the 2nd Avenue line. (Photo by the author)

Forty of the forty-five speakers at the MESA public hearing on September of 1999 called for the full-length line. The MTA issued a statement in the Federal Register on March 22, 2001, stating that they would focus on the full-length line. After public hearings on May 12 and 13, 2003, that option was selected. Representative Anthony D. Weiner summed up the feelings of the public hearings’ participants when he said, “This is going to be noisy, this is going to be dusty, and there are going to be people who have their dishes shaking off of their cabinets during part of this work, but at the end of the day, I think that we can’t live without the 2nd Avenue subway.”90

A new groundbreaking took place for the 2nd Avenue line in the lower East Harlem tunnel segment on April 12, 2007, the same segment Governor Rockefeller and Mayor Lindsay broke ground for three decades earlier. Governor Eliot Spitzer and MTA Chairman Peter Kalikow led the ceremony.

The 2nd Avenue line will be built in four segments. The first, now under way, runs south from 96th Street to connect with the 63rd Street and the Broadway lines. The Lexington Avenue station on the 63rd Street line was built as a four-track station, with the side of the platform used by 2nd Avenue trains walled off from the side used by Queens Boulevard line trains. The walls are being removed and the station rebuilt to allow for transfers between the two lines. Completion is scheduled for 2016.

The 2nd Avenue line’s next phase will utilize the two East Harlem segments and run to Park Avenue and East 125th Street, meeting the Metro-North Railroad and the Lexington Avenue line. Subsequent segments will be built to 2nd Avenue and Houston Street and then to Hanover Square in Lower Manhattan. The fate of those segments, as with every other plan in the past, rests on what funding is available in the future.

But that’s a story for another time. (p.226)


(1) . Now St. James Place.

(2) . New York Times, December 20, 1904.

(3) . Brian J. Cudahy, Under the Sidewalks of New York (1979; Lexington, Mass.: Stephen Greene Press, 1988).

(4) . Report of the Rapid Transit Railroad Commissioners, 1904, p. 24.

(5) . Ibid.

(6) . The space left for track ramps are still visible on either side of the Nevins Street station, as is a third platform built under the existing outbound platform at that station. In effect, Nevins Street would have played the same role as a transfer station that DeKalb Avenue would for the BMT.

(7) . See Chapter 3.

(8) . New York Times, July 16, 1910. The extension of the H&M from 33rd Street and 6th Avenue to the Grand Central Terminal was never built.

(9) . The original IRT line consisted of the Lexington Avenue line south of 42nd Street, what is now the 42nd Street Shuttle, and the Broadway–7th Avenue line north of 42nd Street. By adding the northern extension of the Lexington Avenue line and the 7th Avenue line’s southern extension, the PSC created a system in Manhattan that looked like an “H,” and newspapers referred to it as such.

(p.291) (10) . Office of the Transit Construction Commission, A Report of the Chief Engineer Submitting for Consideration: A Comprehensive Rapid Transit Plan Covering All Boroughs of the City of New York, July 29, 1920.

(11) . They would be put to use, but not for seven decades. Right now, they are used to allow for a connection with the 63rd Street line when needed; 2nd Avenue line trains will use them on a full-time basis when that line is put into service.

(12) . See Chapter 7.

(13) . New York Times, August 6, 1923.

(14) . The Bloomingdale family had a history of supporting transit construction. His father, Lyman, had led efforts to support the RTC plans for the East Side two decades earlier.

(15) . New York Times, December 20, 1924.

(16) . Ibid.

(17) . New York Times, June 12, 1925.

(18) . New York Times, January 17, 1927.

(19) . New York Times, April 6, 1929.

(20) . New York Times, August 30 and 31, 1929.

(21) . New York Times, October 6, 1929.

(22) . New York Times, January 12, 1930.

(23) . New York Times, April 5, 1931.

(24) . New York Times, May 7, 1931.

(25) . First Avenue Association Bulletin, no. 58, October 1932.

(26) . Stopping at the Court Street station, then part of a shuttle line running between there and Hoyt–Schermerhorn. The station closed in 1946 and later became the home of the New York Transit Museum.

(27) . Bronx Home News, September 28, 1930.

(28) . Most of it, anyway. Almost sixty years later, when the New York City Department of Transportation rebuilt 6th Avenue’s roadway, they found that the footings of the 6th Avenue Elevated were still there. The structural columns had been removed in a way not dissimilar to cutting down a tree.

(29) . Bronx Home News, October 27, 1939.

(30) . Bronx Home News, October 28, 1939.

(31) . New York Times, February 23, 1940.

(32) . New York Times, May 29, 1942.

(33) . Ibid.

(34) . Brooklyn Eagle, June 6, 1940.

(35) . New York Times, June 7, 1940.

(36) . New York Herald Tribune, June 7, 1940.

(37) . Long Island Daily Press, May 29, 1942.

(38) . Air and Space Magazine, November 1, 2001. According to this article, when a Hellcat would land on an aircraft carrier, support crews would announce, “Here comes another piece of the Second Avenue El!”

(39) . From The Third Rail Online, July 2, 2001, available at http://www.thethirdrail.net/.

(40) . Bronx Home News, February 6, 1945.

(41) . New York Times, January 6, 1944.

(42) . See Appendix A.

(43) . Two years later, O’Dwyer would appoint Bingham to serve as BOT chairman.

(44) . A truncated version of this connection opened in 1968, connecting the lines running over the bridges with the 6th Avenue line.

(45) . New York Herald Tribune, December 16, 1947.

(p.292) (46) . William A. Reid’s career in the New York City government began during John Purroy Mitchel’s administration and ended in that of Robert F. Wagner. He worked in the office of Comptroller William Prendergast in 1913 and served in a number of financial positions in the city government. He was the fiscal adviser to Fiorello H. La Guardia when he was appointed to the Board of Transportation. William O’Dwyer appointed Reid chairman of the BOT after Charles P. Gross resigned. He became deputy mayor of New York after Mayor O’Dwyer’s reelection in 1949. He subsequently was the chairman of the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad and then served as the chairman of the New York City Housing Authority from 1958 through 1965. A Housing Authority development in Brooklyn is named after him.

(47) . New York Times, December 29, 1948.

(48) . New York Times, August 30, 1950.

(49) . New York Times, August 18, 1952.

(50) . The other stations closed for this reason during this period were City Hall, Worth Street, and 17th Street on the Lexington Avenue line and 91st Street on the Broadway–7th Avenue line.

(51) . New York Times, April 24, 1952.

(52) . In 2011 dollars, $12.2 million.

(53) . New York Post, January 26, 1954.

(54) . New York Post, June 3, 1954.

(55) . Memorandum to the New York City Transit Authority: Demolition of Third Avenue Elevated Line South of 149th Street, report to the TA Board by Colonel Sidney H. Bingham, July 1954.

(56) . New York Times, January 3, 1956.

(57) . New York Herald Tribune, September 23, 1955.

(58) . New York Times, September 23, 1955.

(59) . New York Times, April 24, 1956.

(60) . MacNeil Mitchell served in the New York State legislature for twenty-seven years. He is remembered for legislation written with Assembly Member Alfred A. Lama providing tax abatement and low-interest mortgages for developers and nonprofit organizations building middle-income co-op housing and housing with affordable rentals.

(61) . New York Times, January 18, 1957.

(62) . New York Times, March 9, 1957.

(63) . New York Times, November 26, 1957. This is the first instance I’ve found of plans to make any part of the subway system accessible to the elderly or disabled. Needless to say, the ramps were never built.

(64) . New York Times, January 2, 1968.

(65) . New York Times, August 13, 1968.

(66) . Ibid.

(67) . New York Times, May 24, 1969.

(68) . New York Times, August 15, 1968.

(69) . New York Times, March 5, 1969.

(70) . Ibid.

(71) . Ibid.

(72) . New York Times, June 5, 1969.

(73) . Later a member of the MTA Board.

(74) . New York Times, June 6, 1969.

(75) . New York Times, July 24, 1969.

(76) . Of “Hit Sign, Win Suit” at Ebbets Field fame.

(77) . Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Public Hearing in the Matter of: Second Avenue Subway, Route 132A, East 34th Street to East 126th Street, Manhattan, September 16, 1971, pp. 51–54.

(p.293) (78) . In 2011 dollars, $134 million.

(79) . This was also the sixty-eighth anniversary of the opening of the original subway line.

(80) . New York Times, January 21, 1973.

(81) . New York Times, February 18, 1973.

(82) . Department of City Planning / Municipal Arts Society, Humanizing Subway Entrances: Opportunity on Second Avenue, New York, September 1974, p. 8.

(83) . New York Times, July 26, 1974.

(84) . New York Times, October 16, 1974.

(85) . New York Times, November 1, 1974.

(86) . New York Times, November 12, 1974.

(87) . New York Times, July 27, 1995.

(88) . New York Times, March 12, 1999.

(89) . “Public advocate” is the title of the position that has been known in the past as “president of the Board of Aldermen” and “City Council president.”

(90) . NY1 News, May 13, 2003.