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Morning Spew

MTA, Maybe Getting Out of Its Own Way?

One tunneling boondoggle possibly avoided, another still on track. And other links to start your day.

The massive 86th Street Station on the Second Avenue Subway Line while under construction. (Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin)

On Monday, the MTA announced it had awarded the first contract for "phase two" of the Second Avenue subway, which will stretch the Q from 96th Street on the Upper East Side to 125th Street in Spanish Harlem. The $182 million contract will go toward removing utility lines buried where the subway line needs to run, the first step of pretty much any infrastructure project in New York City, where under pretty much any area of surface, especially in Manhattan, you'll find electric wires, sewers, drinking water pipes, steam pipes, or long-ago forgotten pipes that are maybe still somehow in use (or should remain buried). 

Building tunnels is what the MTA does, and as part of cost-saving efforts for the Second Avenue subway, which just saw its price tag reduced from by as much as $1 billion, the MTA will use "cut-and-cover" (a method that involves tearing up a surface-level street, building a tunnel, and then covering it back up) instead of wildly expensive tunnel-boring machines for much of the extension; reuse old abandoned tunnels from the 1970s effort to build the line (instead of destroying and replacing them); and make the stations themselves much smaller, as opposed to the recent mega-stations they built for phase one, as well as the 7 train extension. Phase two has a projected early 2030s completion date, and construction is slated to begin this spring. 

“We can do better. We acknowledge phase one could have been delivered better, faster, and cheaper,” Jamie Torres-Springer, the MTA’s chief of construction and development, told reporters during a press conference on Monday. “We’ve learned the lessons from that.”

While this change represents a new line of thinking for the MTA (faster, less needlessly complicated, more cost-efficient), that type of thinking applied to another tunnel project might be dooming another vital MTA initiative. The Interborough Express, a planned 14-mile light rail line running from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn to Jackson Heights, Queens, that would provide transfers to 17 different outerborough subway lines, is a top priority for Governor Kathy Hochul, who just proposed spending millions on engineering and design work for the project. But advocates for the rail line (which the MTA has decided will be a light rail/trolley line, instead of a subway, for cost reasons), are calling attention to one part of the current plan that they worry might derail the whole project—a two-thirds of a mile detour onto the streets of Middle Village, Queens, which would force the light rail to share the road with drivers, instead of expanding a tunnel that runs beneath the All Faiths Cemetery. The detour would mean that instead of the light rail having a dedicated right-of-way like our subways do, it would have to stop at red lights and possibly even get stuck in traffic. 

An amNewYork investigation found that while the street detour could possibly save the project millions (and spare the City from possibly having to disturb corpses), it could also imperil the Interborough Express's reliability, putting its speed on par with other slow-going trolley lines outside of New York, like in Boston, where its street-sharing trolley runs the slowest of all their metro lines. On top of that issue, Queens Councilmember Bob Holden has threatened to slow down or put the kibosh on the whole project if the proposed detour slows down drivers or takes away parking. “If you can’t use the track area, the deal is off,” he told amNewYork. 

So what about just expanding the tunnel? The MTA ruled it out as a cost-saving measure, but transit researchers pushing for tunnel expansion found that using the very same methods the MTA is now pursuing on the Second Avenue extension would cost far less than what the MTA had projected during its feasibility study for the possible tunnel for the Interborough Express. 

“Because everyone next to where the tunnel would go is dead, they can use cheaper shallow cut-and-cover to add two passenger tracks next to the [tunnel],” Alon Levy, a researcher at New York University, who worked on a report advocating for tunnel expansion, told amNewYork. “Done right, [the savings are] in the tens of millions.”

So will the MTA heed its own advice when it comes to tunnels, and avoid a collision course in deep Queens? Here's hoping—but maybe this is all irrelevant. On Monday, MTA leadership also warned that pretty much every capital project is jeopardized by any potential delays to congestion pricing, and the cascade of lawsuits challenging the tolling plan. Until those get resolved, any system expansion is, you guess it, stuck in traffic…and won't move forward. 

 Some links we're tunneling cost-effectively right to you: 

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