No Light Rail in Vancouver!

Home Grand Jury Findings Rail Supporters Europe Rail Neighborhood The Plan Cars The Bridge Publications No Tolls!
Light rail costs too much, does too little

Transit Follies #2: The Second Avenue Subway

Apr 3


Today we continue our April Fools week of transit follies with the Second Avenue Subway. This hugely expensive project proves that, if Manhattan didn’t exist, no one would build it today.

Phase I of the Second Avenue Subway will extend all the way from 63rd Street to 96th Street, a distance of 2.3 miles. As the name implies, it will go underneath Second Avenue, meaning it is just two blocks from the Lexington Avenue Subway. Eventually, the city wants to extend the subway in both directions to a total length of 8.5 miles.

The cost for this modest little rail line? A mere $4.7 billion for phase I, and a total of $16.8 billion for the entire length. That works out to about $2 billion per route mile. (Since there are two miles of track per route mile, that means a mere $1 billion per mile of track.)

The Second Avenue Subway was originally proposed way back in 1929, when it was projected to cost $800 million — about $10 billion in today’s dollars. Of course, the Depression killed that plan. Voters approved funding for it in 1951, but the city diverted their money to other parts of the subway system. Voters approved more funding for it in 1967, and construction actually began in 1972, but the city’s bankruptcy killed it again.

In 2005, state voters approved a transportation measure that included money for what someone called “the most famous thing that’s never been built in New York.” Contracts were signed on March 20 to begin construction.

“Stand clear of the closing doors!” Flickr photo by Infinite Jeff.

Now, it may be true that the Lexington Avenue subway is the most heavily used transit line in America. According to Wikipedia, it carries 1.3 million riders a day, but page 1-6 of the supplemental EIS for the Second Avenue Subway says it is only 400,000 riders a day — or maybe 817,000 (further down the same page) — or maybe “more than 500,000″ (page 15 of the executive summary).

In any case, it is a lot of people and they say it is crowded. What a surprise: cram 80,000 people per square mile onto a small island, and what do you get? Crowds.

So they want to spend $2 billion a mile building a parallel line just two blocks away. The original plan called for federal taxpayers to cover half the total $16.8 billion cost. The current plan asks the feds to cover only 30 percent — a mere $1.35 billion — of phase I.

What do we get for all this money? According to the executive summary of the supplemental EIS, the number one benefit is “bolstering the economy of New York City.” Okay, but just why should federal taxpayers spend billions to bolster a local economy?

This is followed by “reducing subway crowding.” Doesn’t this raise the old induced-demand argument that is so often used against highway construction? Building a new subway reduces subway congestion, but it also bolsters the economy, “inducing new investment,” which will lead to more subway crowding. The difference between this and highways is that new highways can pretty much pay for themselves, while subways just gulp more and more tax dollars every year.

The last benefit is “reducing vehicle use and improving air quality”: they estimate it will take 9,750 auto trips off the road each day. I don’t know how they get 9,750 since the line is supposed to generate only 5,200 new transit trips a day. Either way, it is a tiny number. The light-rail lines in Minneapolis and Portland easily took that many auto trips off the road for a far lower cost.

On the other hand, they expect phase I to carry a total of 213,000 riders a day. Since only 5,200 are new trips, basically they are just moving riders from the Lexington line to the new Second Avenue line. That’s what a new freeway does, relieving congestion on parallel routes by attracting traffic from those routes. But, again, most new freeways pay for themselves in tolls or gas taxes; they don’t need multi-billion construction subsidies and huge operating subsidies.

Here’s the thing. New York has about 650 miles or so of subways. If they cost $1 billion a mile, it would take the better part of a trillion dollars to build the entire system today. Would that make any sense?

For that kind of money, we could pretty much replicate all of the interstate highways in every urban area of the country — about 75,000 lane miles of freeway at an average cost of $9 million per lane mile. Given the choice, which would make more sense: provide automobility for 230 million urban Americans, or subway mobility for 8 million New Yorkers? Of course, we don’t have to rebuild the entire New York subway system, but the point is that the money spent on new Manhattan subways could provide far more mobility if invested elsewhere.

Remember the Big Dig? It cost less than the proposed 8.5-mile (17 rail miles) Second Avenue Subway, and included 161 lane miles of road, about half in tunnels. The Big Dig, by the way, was a city beautification project, not a highway project, so its cost is far from representative of other highways. Yet each lane mile cost less than a tenth as much as a rail mile on the Second Avenue Subway — plus the Big Dig won’t cost tens of millions of dollars per year to operate.

To put it another way, the cost of the Second Avenue Subway would be enough to build the entire freeway systems (at $10 million a lane mile) of Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul, or Phoenix — or of Portland and San Jose put together. These are systems that move 40 to 50 million passenger miles per day, not to mention thousands of ton miles of freight. The Second Avenue subway, if completely built, would move less than 5 million passenger miles per day even if every single rider went the whole length.

Manhattan is dense enough. Federal taxpayers don’t need to spend billions of dollars subsidizing further density. I know many believe low-density areas are also subsidized, but let’s just get rid of all the subsidies and let people choose based on their own preferences and not on the preferences of would-be social-engineering planners.


Trackback  •  Posted in Planning Disasters, Transportation  

Reprinted from The Antiplanner