Late Again But Very Welcome

2nd Avenue Subway Bash: Final Countdown Begins

Updated 3 years ago Peter McCarthy
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and MTA Chairman Tom Prendergast Ride the Subway in 2014
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and MTA Chairman Tom Prendergast Ride the Subway in 2014
Photo Credit: Metropolitan Transit Authority of New York / CCO 2.0 License

A couple of weeks back, Governor Andrew Cuomo's office walked back the "by the end of the year" commitment to a January 1st (partial) opening, but the city's new subway line is finally here. Excitement like this over public transit is rare, especially in cynical New York City.

Yes, that was New York's notoriously cranky governor grinning for selfies with absolute strangers at an open house for the 2nd Avenue Line's 96th Street Station, two days before Christmas. He signed autographs too, like any other star performer, and typically, he seized an opportunity to chastise the local media.

"You are unbelievable," he griped to WNYC editor Kate Hinds, who had the nerve to ask him about timing for the next phase of subway construction.

He was not there to answer questions, Cuomo barked. He was there to meet and greet.

And he had a point. The line waiting to get into the station stretched back two blocks, and few were shivering to hear about when the line would expand to 125th Street. That question's been asked, answered and written about roughly a million times. Who could blame the governor for being bored with it?

So, it's opening, sort of...

After Cuomo demonstrated his personal brand of hard-charging leadership, goosing the MTA and its contractors to meet the most recent public deadline, they still missed it but by less than they might have.

Trains will begin to arrive and depart from three new stations and one expanded at "after around noon" on January 1st. Some will be tempted to believe that "around noon," in MTA speak, means on some lazy weekend in July, but that's less likely with the governor glowering over MTA Chairman Tom Prendergast's shoulder.

Even so, you should be prepared for public relations inspired rationales for any delays, disappointment or failures, which would be expected for any opening of this magnitude but will be magnified in standard New York media style. R Train riders in Brooklyn are, before it opens, pointing fingers over delays caused by the 2nd Avenue Subway. Reviving the W Line seems to be the spark, but MTA say, "No," and so on and so on...

The New York City transportation grievance machine is too complex for one article or, probably, several.

Because the tidal wave of testing provoked by Cuomo's demands fell just a little short, full service on the new line will not commence until January 9th. The MTA's explanation for shutting down from 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. until then is that they need to complete testing of escalators and elevators.

Yes, you read that right. The line is being down so testing of elevators and escalators can be completed...? Don't ask. Especially don't ask Governor Cuomo.

But First, a Party

Judy Berdy, president of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society is so confident of the line's on time opening on New Year's Day that she's leading a tour from the local station that day, starting at 1:00. We hope to be in the group following her under the river.

By then, the first Q Trains should have rumbled into the new, high-ceilinged stations. A lot of riders will be, like those being guided by Berdy, around for the experience, not in a hurry to get anywhere.

Will the cleanup after the party be done?

At around 10:30 on New Year's Eve, Cuomo and other dignitaries will take an inaugural ride up the line, topped off with a midnight countdown.

“I am proud to ring in the New Year on the Second Ave. subway and welcome a new era in New York where there is no challenge too great, no project too grand and all is possible,” Cuomo said, as reported in the Daily News.

You probably won't hear about it from Cuomo, but one of those joining the party will be Mayor Bill de Blasio, his much taller Democratic rival. (I'm betting $5.00 that Cuomo does not stand next to de Blasio for a photo op, even once.)

Announcements from the MTA claim that the event will be hosted by about twenty organizations, including the predictable unions that helped build the subway, business groups expecting to benefit and planning organizations. Among them will also be Huhs? like the Mets and the Central Park Conservancy.

Go figure.

What's in it for me?

From a Roosevelt Islander's perspective, opening the 2nd Avenue Subway is a bit of mixed bag. If you regularly travel up the Upper East Side, to the art museums or the variety of great restaurants, you'll have an easier trip. I'm inclined to think the MTA will squash the bizarre transfer from 63rd Street that requires riding four sets of escalators up to Lexington Avenue and trudging down to 59th Street to reenter for free, regardless of conditions, but it's just as likely to die from natural causes.

Trips south to Madison Square Park and points south on Broadway will be simpler, although a transfer at 34th Street was always available. And being near the start of the line, the trains are likely to be less crowded.

A factor I'm confident the MTA never considered is the likely increase of commuters who drive out of the mass transit deserts in Queens to relatively cheap parking at Motorgate to access the F Train on Roosevelt Island. It's anyone's guess how much clever transit maneuvering will add to crowding at rush hour.

On the bright side, Cornell Tech's summertime opening may add extra pressure on the MTA to come up with a solution. With Cornell Tech joining FDR Four Freedoms Park as top level international draws, will the masterminds of subway scheduling be motivated by the embarrassment of a station aging gracelessly while people with better things to do idle on overcrowded platforms, unable to sardine their way onto infrequent trains?

Roosevelt Island is due for a bump up in importance.

Looking at it selfishly, I'm thrilled that media attention has, after decades of neglect, forced the MTA to clean up the ultra filthy 63rd Street Station. It won't last, of course. Custodial maintenance of subway stations is a rare and exciting thing. But just seeing the caked on layers of dust and debris we've been exposed to on the bridges between escalators removed felt like viewing Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party in a museum for the first time. I'd have stopped dead in my tracks, except for already standing still on the moving stairs.

The transformation from filth was so heady, my wife had to be persuaded that the bridges were not repainted, just cleared out of over a decade of dust, debris and detritus you'd rather not know about.

Exhilaration for me, freeing me of the occasional need to point out the gross neglect, isn't necessarily good news for the MTA. By cleaning up, they've admitted two truths they can no longer deny. One, they really do know what a well-maintained station looks like, and two, they know how to get there.

A year from now, neglect will have returned and the 2nd Avenue Subway will have become part of our routine. But this week will be exciting, counting down, wondering how far Cuomo will distance himself from de Blasio and marveling that the MTA got the job done, no more than two years late and a couple billion over budget.

Forget about it. It's in the past. Enjoy the ride.

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