Flanked by local and federal lawmakers, as well as the acting chairman of the MTA, Governor Kathy Hochul toured a section of the concrete shell that’s a partially completed tunnel under the Second Avenue in East Harlem. A remnant and reminder of a project that has started and stalled for nearly half a century. 

When the federal infrastructure bill passed earlier this month, it doubled the amount of funding in a federal grant program that the MTA planned to apply for to fund the next phase of the Second Avenue subway project. And the governor took the opportunity to underscore the urgency of getting to work, hopefully in 2022.

“All I know is if we don’t start now, the costs are going to go higher in the future, this has to be done,” Hochul said, speaking to reporters after the brief tour on Tuesday.

Inside the partially constructed 2nd avenue subway tunnels

The Second Avenue Subway's phase two tunnel, November 23, 2021

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The Second Avenue Subway's phase two tunnel, November 23, 2021
Stephen Nessen / WNYC

Currently, the project is expected to cost $6.3 billion for 1.5 miles of new subway tunnel, which would include three new stations at 106th Street, 116th Street and 125th Street. The MTA hopes federal grants will cover half of the project with “local sources” making up the other half.

MTA officials blame the Trump administration for holding up the projects by sitting on paperwork for two years. Organizers of the Gateway Project, another major project in our region, also complained the Trump administration stalled progress by not approving routine, but required documents.

“We are very, very anxious and pressing the administration hard to grant our request,” Hochul said. Hopefully, approvals very soon will allow us to announce the start of it in 2022, we'll be able to get it done.” (An email to federal DOT officials asking what the current status of the Second Avenue subway is and what the timeline for moving it forward is, was not immediately returned.)

The federal DOT’s website, which was last updated in May 2021, it rates the project medium-high, which means federal officials believe the MTA will be able to pay its share, although it says the agency was being “optimistic” about the capital costs, the growth of capital revenue, and growth of farebox revenue.

Last week, the MTA announced it wouldn’t be raising fares next year, in an effort to lure riders back, although the MTA’s Chief Financial officer recommended raising fares in mid-2022, 2023, and 2025 to avoid future deficits, putting the MTA on unsure financial footing.

The next phase of the Second Avenue subway is haunted by the cost overruns and long delays of the first phase. The New York Times dubbed the nearly completed East Side Access project in an article on costly labor and wasted resources the “Most Expensive Mile of Subway Track on Earth.” At $3.5 billion per mile, and the first phase of the Second Avenue at $2.5 billion per mile, are some of the costliest per-mile projects in the world.

The current acting chairman, Janno Lieber, who was previously head of construction at the MTA, doesn’t want that moniker hanging over this phase of the project.

“Moving this thing forward we’re going to do it differently, smartly, and hopefully more efficiently than some of the projects in the past,” Lieber said. 

Although when asked on what would be different, he said the project would be a design-build project, construction jargon for hiring the same company to design and build the project, rather than having one company design it, and then letting a separate firm build it. The MTA would also be bidding not just for the cheapest contractor, but the most time-efficient one as well.

MTA

Lieber added that the per-rider cost of the three new subway stops is actually a “bargain,” with 1.3 million people a day riding the Lexington Avenue subway line (4/5/6). MTA data shows the new line might serve an additional 123,000 riders a day when the Q train connects to the 4/5/6 at 125th Street. The agency is also planning a way for riders to transfer to the Metro-North station at 125th Street. 

Plus, Hochul put an equity lens on why these stations would be important. “This is the most transit-dependent community in the city of New York,” she said, noting that 70% of East Harlem residents use mass transit to get to work, “versus the citywide average of 55%.” 

The project will also require several buildings and businesses to move, or be possessed by the state using eminent domain laws. The MTA is in the process of negotiating with several owners now.

Still, the first phase took nearly a decade to complete (after its 2007 groundbreaking) and cost $4.3 billion. The second phase, expected to begin next year, could take up to 8 years, and is already slated to cost $2 billion more than the first phase, despite the fact that much of the tunnel was already built in the 1970s. The MTA also has to dig under the current 125th Street station, and build three new, ADA-compliant stations.

And Hochul is already looking forward to the next phases.

“Now that phase one is done, phase two is on the books and let's get that done because I can't wait to get it to phase two and phase three and four. Let's get all the way down to phase four,” Hochul said.

Phase three would extend the Q line south to Houston Street and phase four would connect Houston Street to Hanover Square in the Financial District.

This story has been updated to reflect at a station is expected at 106th Street, not 103rd Street, and also to note that the "Most Expensive Mile of Subway Track on Earth" was referring to the East Side Access program.