A Dream Deferred, a Dream Realized

It is hardly surprising that complaints about the newly opened Second Avenue Subway began on the very first day — actually, in the first few minutes. Trains were late; public lavatories were locked; station announcements were wrong; some people even complained that the first day rides weren’t free.

The tendency to complain is an unfortunately all-too-common part of human nature, one that we all have to work hard to eradicate.

Instead of complaining, it would be worthwhile to focus on some of the positive aspects of the experience and lessons that can be learned from it.

One of the main lessons to be learned from the Second Avenue Subway is from the long, difficult history of its planning and construction, almost a century in the making. The idea first embedded itself in New York’s consciousness back in the 1920s, a long time ago, when the world was a very different place. Before World War II and the Holocaust. Before commercial air travel, personal computers and cell phones.

It was going to be a big, long-term project no matter what, but mostly financial obstacles kept delaying it. The Great Depression of the 1930s was one. The municipal bankruptcy of the 1970s shut down construction shortly after it began in 1972. The Second Avenue line often took a back seat to competing demands of other projects and other needs.

For those who lived close to the construction, it was a challenging time. Bienvenida Rodriguez, who said she had lived in the neighborhood for 37 years, said it was “noisy and scary.”

“We’ve had explosions,” she said. “Sometimes we had no water. It’s been rough for the people living here. I hope now it won’t be dangerous but I’m afraid the homeless will come here now. So we’re praying for the best.”

Some of the line’s proponents never lived to see it finished. Two former chairmen of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority who advocated for it — William J. Ronan and E. Virgil Conway — died. So did Gary Russo, a construction worker who used to sing for passersby in front of the construction site.

But finished it is, at last. The lesson of the Second Avenue Subway is: Never give up hope!

To be sure, there were doubters and dissenters. In 1971, when it seemed the city might never summon the wherewithal to complete the subway, William A. Perlmuth wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Times, arguing that in view of the “extraordinary length of time it would take to build,” it would be faster and cheaper to improve bus service with a dedicated lane.

He may have had a point, but the dream did not die. The hopes of planners and builders and millions of New Yorkers for a much-needed subway line have not been denied. Heartfelt appreciation for the realization of deferred dreams went into the cheers that filled the bright new station as the first Q train to run from 96th Street in Manhattan to Coney Island pulled out on January 1.

There is another lesson to be learned as well. As much as we laud the fortitude that saw the project through, we have to criticize the mismanagement that in large part necessitated such fortitude.

Not all the setbacks were the result of irresistible historical and economic forces like the Depression. Had the project been handled by private builders, it would likely have been finished decades sooner and at significantly lower cost.

David Gunn ran the New York subways in the late 1980s and had a hand in the planning. “I can’t tell you what’s happened since then,” he said this week, “but it shouldn’t have taken 30 more years.”

The price tag on the Second Avenue Subway — over $4 billion — does not compare favorably to similar projects elsewhere. For example, recent research shows that while Second Avenue’s first phase cost $1.7 billion per kilometer, the cost of the Crossrail metro in London is $1 billion per kilometer. As well, a 9-kilometer metro line in Paris completed in 2003 cost $230 million per kilometer. Even allowing for differences between construction in New York versus London or Paris (don’t blame the labor unions, say the labor unions), the cost has been very high.

Rich Fitzsimmons, a spokesman for the subway construction worker union, asserted that it would have been less expensive if the subway had been dug deeper so laborers weren’t working around utility lines and other obstacles overseen by various government agencies that compounded the difficulties.

The MTA is said to be learning lessons from all this, and will seek to apply them to development of the final 13 stations of the project.

We certainly hope so.