A new NYC subway grows under 2nd Ave.
It was the year prohibition began, the first commercial radio station premiered, American women were granted the right to vote, Babe Ruth joined the Yankees and New York City announced it was building the Second Avenue Subway (SAS).
The year was 1920 and that subway line, along the East Side of Manhattan, has yet to open. Priorities, politics and a changing financial picture kept the rail plans on the shelf until this decade.
The massive multiphase project currently underway is the first major expansion of NYC’s subway system in over half a century. Since 2007, workers deep below 2nd Avenue have been blasting, digging and building two miles of new tunnels and three stations. This $4.5 billion Phase 1 extends from 96th Street to 63rd Street (with stations at 96th, 86th and 72nd Streets).
When the SAS’ initial phase is completed in 2016 it will relieve the overcrowding on the Lexington Avenue line — the only subway line running the length of the East Side. Over 1 million commuters cram into it every weekday.
The new line will be an extension of the Lexington Avenue Q line, connecting with it at the 63rd Street station. Planners predict the SAS will carry 200,000 passengers each weekday.
2nd Ave line is finally under construction — ready to open soon
A typical Tunnel Boring Machine
Massive amounts of bedrock has been blasted and bored
The project started with the relocation of the underground water, gas, steam, telephone and other utility lines found close to street level. Then, some 500 workers descended 100-feet underground and bored a pair of 24-feet diameter tunnels. The tunneling was completed in 2011 and the worker's attention shifted to the stations, their entrances and ancillary structures.
The star of the underground tunneling was a massive, modular Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) that cut through the hard bedrock. This 485-ton, 450-foot long machine is “a real mechanical marvel,” said Alaeden Jlelaty, construction project manager.
The business end of the TBM is an enormous cutting wheel. Using tremendous hydraulic pressure the cutter head is pushed into the rock face. As its large cluster of cutter rings grind through the rock, broken rocks and debris are deposited on a conveyor belt and transported to workers at the TBM’s rear. Then the TBM's huge hydraulic gripper forces the massive machine forward 6 feet and the tunneling continues.
As it worked, the front of the machine buried itself in the rock.
On a typical day the TBM bored through 100-feet. At other times the process was slowed by the changes in geology — either the density of the rock was too hard or the dirt too soft. In order to stabilize the soft soil prior to drilling workers pumped refrigerant into the dirt and froze it. “We froze the entire area of Second Avenue between 92nd Street to 91st Street,” said Jlelaty. Once the earth was frozen the TBM did its boring job and the section was braced before the soil thawed.
Jlelaty is ready to find solutions to such construction challenges. “Most of your time is spent problem solving,” said the project manager. “It’s half science and half art.”
A 2nd Ave blast seen from above
Upper East Side demographics
The Upper East Side, between Central Park and the East River, is the most affluent area in New York City and possibly the world. "This is where the New Yorkers who run the world live,” says New York magazine.
Here you find stunning architecture including the 17-story Art Deco 740 Park Avenue, home to the highest concentration of billionaires in the U.S.
Residents angered by blasts
The TBM method is hardly perceived on the surface. No long sections of streets were torn up as occurred when the city’s subway was first built in the 1900s.
However, area residents are upset about the blasting, which occur several times a day, five days a week. Even though blasts are rigged deep below ground to create each of the three cavernous train stations, they are felt on the surface in the highly populated Upper East Side.
Residents along the construction site said it was an awful experience living in the vicinity of one of the three subway stations. “They blast all day long,” Helena Simon told WCBS radio. “The noise is outrageous. You cannot even hear the person you are with.”
Residents also expressed concerns about the impact odors and dust created by the construction project is having on their health. Businesses in the area have also been adversely impacted by project's many sidewalk detours and a lack of street visibility created by the many obstructions erected to support the subterranean workers. Rents in the area have tumbled 40% and several businesses have fled leaving vacant shops.
Down below, an explosive crew spent the past several years blasting out the large warehouse-size sections for each of the stations. Each station is 43-feet wide and 69-feet high.
To excavate the stone, workers drilled holes in the rock, then carefully stuffed explosives in the holes using wooden poles, rigged the detonators, cleared the area, sounded an alarm and set off the munitions. After each blast, laborers sprayed water on the section to damp down the dust.
As each station progressed, workers sprayed liquid concrete on the huge earth walls to reinforce and shape them into a more finalized appearance.
No subway grates is great for pedestrians wearing high heels
The iconic scene of Marilyn Monroe standing over a sidewalk subway grate as air blows her dress billowing above her waist couldn’t be filmed along the route of the Second Avenue Subway.
Sidewalk grates, which repeatedly trap and damage high heels, won’t be used by this subway line.
For over a century, the city has relied on these grates to provide natural ventilation to the subterranean rail lines. The SAS’s stations will be air conditioned so natural air, flowing through grates, can’t be used.
Air will be pumped in and out of seven-story ventilating towers near every station. The ventilators will pump out hot air and pull in cooler air.
Tons of rock is recycled
Massive muck houses temporarily erected on the street handle the 5,000 tons of blasting debris and TBM excavation produced each day.
The muck houses serve as depots. Trucks are loaded with the prehistoric rock unearthed in this project and head to a Newark, NJ recycling center, where the stone is ground into a usable size for construction.
Some of the Second Avenue rock is part of a new dormitory being built at a New Jersey college and it's in a golf course in the Bronx.
This subway line itself has gone through a long, bumpy trip before it reached fruition.
Proponents experienced a “Groundhog's Day” effect every decade or so, as financial constraints caused by the Great Depression, World War II and Korean War continually derailed the idea.
The plans stayed on the shelf even after the demolition of two of the subway system’s other East Side north - south routes. (The Second Avenue elevated line — the El — was removed in 1940, followed by the Third Avenue El, 15 years later.)
First subway fare was a nickle
The New York subway opened in 1904 with a fare of 5 cents ($1.32 today). It doubled 44 years later. In 1953, the fare increased to 15 cents ($1.46 today). The subway token was introduced that year, because turnstile machines could only handle one coin.
Subway fares repeatedly increased over the years. In 1986, the fare jumped to a dollar ($2.13 today) and to $1.50 in 1995 ($2.30 today). During its four decades, the token design was occasionally changed to thwart thieves.
In 1994, computerized, plastic MetroCards were introduced. They allow passengers to add funds to their cards. Currently, the MetroCard base fare is $2.50, the 7-day unlimited fare is $30 and the 30-day unlimited fare is $112. Technology allows MetroCards to easily charge discount fares to children, elderly, students and disabled.
A 2011 city commission determined the New York City Subway is one of the most cost efficient systems in the country. —TDowling
In the late 60s, the city applied for $254 million in federal funds and $25 million was initial granted for the SAS. In 1972, city leaders dug ceremonial shovels in Second Avenue marking the beginning of the project. Construction barely started when, in 1975, the project was shutdown caused by NYC’s financial problems.
Money is still a problem today. There’s no funding for the remaining phases of the project (Phase 2- 125th Street to 96th Street, Phase 3- 63rd Street to Houston Street and Phase 4- Houston Street to Hanover Square).
Despite this many New Yorkers are optimistic that Phase 1 of the new SAS will be well received.
New York magazine predicted, “Residents would, for the first time, be spared the notorious trek to the Lex line that is known to real-estate brokers as ‘the walk.’ The new subway would also grow the so-called hospital corridor — the big medical institutions along Second Avenue — that are driving the city’s health-care industry.”
“Just as the subways built from 1900 to 1940 shaped the city’s growth through the 20th century, so a Second Avenue line built now, at the outset of the 21st, could help drive the city’s growth for the next hundred years. The city’s future could hinge on its ability to move people into its ever-expanding business district,” concludes New York magazine.
© 2013 Thomas Dowling