The countdown has begun for the opening of the Second Avenue subway this weekend, which promises to make travel easier for about 200,000 New Yorkers every day. So why did it take so long to build? Transit Reporter Jose Martinez looks at the project's tortured history in Part One of NY1's series, "A First for Second Avenue."
Work on the Second Avenue Subway line began in 1972, when Mayor John Lindsay and Gov. Nelson Rockefeller broke ground in East Harlem.
Three years later, the project was shelved, a victim of the financial crisis battering the city and state.
"I remember when I was working at the MTA and working on the Second Avenue Subway," said Philip Mark Plotch, the MTA's manager of planning from 1992 to 2005.
"It just wasn't taken seriously by most of the elected officials — by even most of the people at the MTA — because it had been talked about for so long," Plotch continued.
The line was formally proposed in the 1920s to run the length of Manhattan, one of three new north/south routes.
For decades, that's all it was: talk.
"The Eighth Avenue got built, the Sixth Avenue got built, but the Second Avenue didn't get built," Plotch said. "We hit a depression. We hit a war. We hit very changing demographics all across the region, where people were driving and not using trains."
The demolition of elevated lines over Second and Third avenues in the 1940s and '50s left the far East Side without subway service. That gave the Second Avenue project momentum.
It would take a generation to get funds for it — and then that money quickly went away.
Peter Goldmark, the MTA's state budget director from 1975 to 1977, pulled the plug on construction in 1975.
"We were debating what were we going to do if we ran out of money, and we had to choose between sending out the welfare checks and paying the police force," Goldmark said. "So anything like long-term constructions projects, we halted them."
Just three small segments had been built when the project was halted. It was an easy decision, according to Goldmark.
"I was the person who had to call Mayor [Abraham] Beame and tell him," Goldmark said. "There wasn't a word from him of opposition. He understood."
Taking over the MTA in 1979, Dick Ravitch faced more pressing matters. The system was falling apart.
"It wasn't a priority at all. We had to fix what we had," said Ravitch, who was the MTA's chariman from 1979 to 1983.
With the subways finally back in good shape and money now available, construction resumed in 2007.
The line that will open on New Year's Day is 1.5 miles long, with four stations. A vast improvement for the East Side — just not the one envisioned nearly a century ago.
The rest of the line remains on the drawing board.