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The Second Avenue Subway is finally open, and people are flipping out

A transit project almost 100 years in the making

Passengers riding the New York City subway frequently encounter delays of 15 minutes or longer. It’s just something commuters come to expect when riding the nation’s largest, most overcrowded transit system. But waiting for a train for almost 100 years? Not a typical experience, unless the train you’re waiting for is the Second Avenue Subway.

Knowing the Second Avenue Subway’s full story can help explain why people were flipping out with excitement when the long-delayed line finally opened to the public on January 1st. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal: three new subway stations, serving a new route for the Q train underneath Second Avenue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. But the Second Avenue Subway’s long and tortured path make this a truly exceptional moment in transportation history.

a truly exceptional moment in transportation history

The new route’s origins can be traced back to 1919, when a city planner named Daniel L. Turner drew up a transit plan that first made mention of the Second Avenue Subway. Back then, New York City’s still-growing subway system was less than 15 years old, but congestion on the Fourth Avenue line was already a concern, leading to calls for a new line to be built under Second Avenue.

In 1929, with an allocation of $86 million, the Second Avenue Subway looked close to getting built. But thanks to the Great Depression, plans were pushed back a decade in favor of finishing the IND line along Eighth Avenue. World War II pushed the Second Avenue Subway’s groundbreaking even further into the future. And by 1957, The New York Times and other publications cast doubt on whether it would ever get built.

Thanks to a new federal funding, a revised Second Avenue Subway plan was proposed in 1968, calling for one two-track line to stretch from 34th Street to the Bronx. The city got $25 million in funding for the project, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority broke ground in 1972, at East 103rd Street and Second Avenue. But the money soon dried up, and three years later the project was halted with just three little tunnels having been dug.

The Second Avenue Subway quickly faded into myth

The Second Avenue Subway quickly faded into myth. Most New Yorkers believed they’d never live to see it be built. It became a punch line, an “I’ll believe when I see it” eye-roll for cynical New Yorkers who have come to think the worse of their subway system. Meanwhile, the 4/5/6 trains running under Lexington Avenue along the East Side of Manhattan see enough weekly passengers to rival some cities’ entire transit riderships. Transit experts concluded that the only way to alleviate the congestion was to bring back the Second Avenue Subway.

Environmental studies and early engineering took place throughout the early 2000s, and by 2006, the Federal Transit Administration gave the MTA the green-light to begin the first phase of the Second Avenue Subway. The plan was to build three brand-new stations at 72nd, 86th, and 96th streets, as well as redesign the existing F train station at Lexington Avenue and 53rd Street.

The construction phase, to put it bluntly, was a nightmare for many who live and work along Second Avenue. Businesses closed, underground explosions freaked everyone out, lawsuits piled up, and costs ballooned. But the subway was actually being built.

Thanks to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s single-minded obsession with symbolism and big PR victories, the subway finally opened to the public on January 1st. And as is fitting a project as long in the works as the Second Avenue Subway, the reaction from East Siders, train geeks, and even jaded New Yorkers who thought they’ve seen it all was enthusiastic.

Thousands of curious and celebratory subway fans descended into the three new stations on New Year’s Day to marvel at the sparkling new platforms, the public art, and the complete lack of trash or rats. (That’ll change soon enough.) Verge photographer Amelia Holowaty Krales was there to take the inaugural Q train south from the 96th street station. She reports:

There was a crowd around the station entrance and a palpable air of excitement surrounding the group of local residents, train enthusiasts, and others (one who heard they were giving out free MetroCards). The station was to open to the public at 11:45 and the inaugural train left the station heading south at noon. Governor Cuomo arrived just before the opening, and after greeting the crowd, led them into the station under a modern glass awning covering the escalator.

The happy group descended into the cavernous station, passing walls covered with Sarah Sze's Blueprint for a Landscape. There were smiles and hands with phones in the air all around as the crowd funneled onto the train cars. The train left the station to big cheers as Cuomo's voice came over the loudspeaker, welcoming us while assuring that he was not driving the train. At 86th street and 96th street people peered outside the car, marveled at the clean stations and took more pictures.

In between stations one man commented on how beautiful the new tunnels looked and how, unfortunately, this was not the model train he hoped it would be — there was a newer model, the XS-or-somesuch number that was newer, more modern and maybe they would add these later. These weren't uninformed riders. After 15 minutes we got to 63rd Street and Lexington Avenue and the train mostly emptied. I got on the next uptown train to check out the interiors of the stations we passed. 

The question now is whether the MTA can keep the ball rolling and actually finish the entire Second Avenue Subway line, aka the T line, as planned. The second phase, which would extend the route north into East Harlem, is still in limbo. In 2014, the MTA said it would need $1.5 billion to begin planning and construction, but that it was still at least five years away. The third phase would see the route stretch south to Houston Street, while the fourth would extend it down to the Financial District. It is unclear how much of New York City will still be above sea-level by the time that actually happens.

Neighborhood residents, Pam and Ben Miller wait at the entrance of the 96th Street and Second Avenue Q train station to ride the inaugural Second Avenue Q train. January 1st, 2017.
Neighborhood residents, Pam and Ben Miller wait at the entrance of the 96th Street and Second Avenue Q train station to ride the inaugural Second Avenue Q train. January 1st, 2017.
Trudy Mason, a member of the New York City Transit Riders Council at the 86th Street and Second Avenue Q train station, which had open to riders just an hour earlier.
Trudy Mason, a member of the New York City Transit Riders Council at the 86th Street and Second Avenue Q train station, which had open to riders just an hour earlier.

Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales.