Home >> Build It Bigger, Season 5, Episode 1: New York City 2nd Avenue subway / East Side Access

Build It Bigger, Season 5, Episode 1: New York City 2nd Avenue subway / East Side Access

by Danny Forster on Apr 21, 2011

2nd Ave Subway/East Side Access Project, New York City
Episode 1 season 5
Maybe if you don′t live in New York City it′s hard to understand what the big deal is. They′re moving the Long Island Rail Road tracks so that commuters emerge at Grand Central Terminal instead of Pennsylvania Station. So what? Why spend $15 billion to bring commuters 8 blocks north and 5 blocks east?

Half of the commuters who arrive at Penn Station daily—about 125,000 people—work in midtown. To get there from Penn Station, they have to walk, take a bus, take a cab, or take the subway to get north and east. Eliminate that extra leg of their commute, and you eliminate a significant quantity of rush hour congestion in Manhattan, as well as at least 20 minutes of commuting time each way for workers. When you′re talking about that many people, in that small a space, it′s a very big deal.

Actually achieving it is a big deal too. Which is why, though the project began about 40 years ago, it′s just getting completed now. Here′s what they have to do: carve a new tunnel and a new terminal 150 feet under Grand Central without bothering the trains coming and going or disturbing the 750,000 people who pass through Grand Central every day. They have to blast, but they can′t blast when there′s a train above, because the blast vibration might align with the train vibration and shake the foundations of the whole terminal. The sheer coordination of this project is hard to fathom; and since it takes place so far underground, many New Yorkers aren′t even aware of it yet. However, they soon will be. When the project is complete in 2016, it will substantially improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

Meanwhile, not too far away by New York standards, and right around the corner to the rest of the world, the Metropolitan Transit Authority is building, at long last, a 2nd Avenue Subway. A subway line running up and down the east side of Manhattan, on 2nd Avenue, was first proposed in 1929, but the Depression scuttled the project. Residential development on the Upper East Side of Manhattan increased dramatically over the years, and with it pressure on its one mass transit option: the four-track IRT Lexington Avenue Line, the most crowded in the country. That single line averages 1.3 million daily riders, more than the daily traffic load of the entire Washington Metro system.

So they need a new line. When it′s all done at an unspecified and doubtless oft-postponed date, there will be 16 new stations and 8.5 miles of new tunnel, transforming the real estate and accessibility of the east side. Meanwhile, it′s a mess, as my Grandma will happily tell you.

Cleaning up a mess is the goal of another big subway project in Manhattan: the Fulton Street Transit Center. Fulton Street is already a hub, where 9 subway lines meet. But because those lines derive from three different transit agencies (Interborough Rapid Transit, Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit, and Independent Subway—IRT, BMT, and IND) from the early days of the New York City subway, it′s not so easy to get from one to the other. They didn′t really want you to transfer from one company′s train to another.

Now the city owns the subways and has a strong interest in making those transfers simpler and faster. The Fulton Street Transit Center will still connect all these lines—as well as the PATH train—but it will do it in a way that makes sense, straightening out the tangle of platforms and mezzanines below Fulton Street. They are adding new passageways to improve underground passenger flow, and lessen the confusion and sheer legwork involved in changing trains. Plus a new glass and metal central building with shops and restaurants in an atrium, topped by an oculus or "solar reflector shell"—sort of a skylight on steroids that will bring light far underground.

That′s the flashy side of the project. But most of these MTA works-in-progress are unflashy in a New York kind of way. They′re like a discreet loosening of the belt, relieving a little pressure on a city that, given half a chance, will work harder, live denser, and move faster.