A Century-Delayed Subway Line Is Revived: Continued Progress On the Second Avenue Subway Extension

After several complications with budgeting and construction, new subway extensions will finally ease commutes on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.


Even though there are 472 subway stations in New York City, some low income neighborhoods do not have trains within walking distance. (Photo Credit: Kit Suman / Unsplash)

The MTA is in Phase Two of a four-part plan to increase subway access through the extension of the Q line and revival of the T train. Phase One was completed in 2017 and brought the Q from 63rd street to 96th street. Now Phase Two will carve out millions of cubic feet of dirt and rock, add three new stations up to 125th Street, and lessen crowds during rush hour. 

Phase Two is currently in the planning stage as the MTA prepares for its construction, with a tentative goal to finish by 2029. Once complete, this section, combined with Phase One, will carry about 300,000 total daily passengers and shorten commute times by up to twenty minutes. It will also finally provide East Harlem with better transportation options, a problem that residents have long been advocating to fix. “They’ve been talking about this extension for years,” said Sanjida Mou ’25, who lives in East Harlem. “[The Q] will be useful for going downtown, if other lines have issues.” Mou and other New Yorkers will soon be able to travel directly from East Harlem to the Upper East Side, West Midtown, or Coney Island without any complicated transfers.

But the expansion also requires a large budget. Funded by both the federal government and state taxes, Phase One cost 1.7 billion dollars per kilometer. Phase Two is estimated to cost almost four times as much: a total of 6.3 billion dollars, making it one of the most expensive transportation updates in the entire world.  

On top of the price, the extension of the Second Avenue Subway is already a century overdue. In the early 1920s, the number of annual subway riders rocketed to over one million. The subway system was unable to  support the sudden influx of people, so the New York Public Service Commission sent engineer Daniel Turner to design a new solution. Turner suggested creating several new train routes, including replacing the Second Avenue elevated line with a huge underground line. The elevated tracks were taken down, but the Great Depression prevented any progress on building the replacement tunnels. 

There were several more attempts to continue the project throughout the twentieth century. However, they all failed, with World War II and the Korean War draining resources and funding. A federal grant allowed construction to restart in 1972, but it was paused once more because of the city’s fiscal crisis and near bankruptcy three years later. Afterwards, the MTA decided to focus only on repairing and updating the already existing train lines. This meant that for several decades, East Harlem — one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in New York City — had only one subway line: the Lexington Avenue subway.

By 1995, the MTA and the city government had recovered and felt ready to re-address the proposed Second Avenue Subway. They were able to add on to the tunnels that were already built before budget cuts, so the first phase of the project was easier to implement. But to extend the line further for Phase Two, construction workers needed to excavate new tunnels underneath sidewalks already weighed down by tall buildings. This situation raised an important question: How do you maintain balance while demolishing the bedrock beneath thriving, towering city life in a neighborhood home to thousands of people?

When earlier tunnels had been made, construction workers closed off and cracked open many streets. The restriction of these streets, plus the noise of construction, was extremely disruptive to the everyday lives and routines of New Yorkers. However, modern day construction workers have been able to use new technology like tunnel-boring machines. These are lowered underground through a relatively small opening and drill beneath the surface for miles to avoid such problems. Although the work is still loud, this new method does not interrupt daily life to the same extent as before. 

But even with advanced machinery, there are still many factors to consider when hollowing out giant subterranean cavities. Most of Manhattan is built upon Manhattan schist, a type of metamorphic rock that is durable but reacts inconsistently to drilling. Although it may remain structurally sound in some areas, others a few hundred feet away can be prone to collapsing. During Phase One of the Second Avenue Subway construction, engineers took rock samples every 1,000 feet before drilling to monitor the schist. They also carefully prepared in order to avoid the already crowded labyrinth of sewer pipes, electrical lines, other subway tunnels, and the water system.

After the tunnels were complete, construction workers opened up huge swaths of empty space for future stations — a feat that drained half of the Phase One budget — using dynamite while monitoring the cavern’s stability. They also reinforced hundreds of buildings directly above the route, ensuring that the vibrations from the dynamite would not cause collapses. 

On January 1st, 2017, the new 72nd, 86th, and 96th street stations finally opened. Even though these long-awaited stations have demonstrated the MTA’s inefficiency, they also reflect improvements. Unlike older stations with ceilings that amplify the sound of incoming trains, the ceilings of the new stations are covered with a special metal that dulls the clamor. The new platforms are all ADA accessible with elevators for those with physical disabilities, strollers, or heavy luggage. The new stations also feature artwork celebrating New York City. For example, artist Vik Moniz created dozens of diverse mosaic characters that line the walls of the 72nd street station, and the 92nd street station highlights Sarah Sze’s swooping “Blueprint for a Landscape” mural. 

However, not everyone is in favor of the Second Avenue Subway. Critics worry about gentrification and fear that running more subway lines through East Harlem will permanently alter the neighborhood. Rent prices may increase, which could evict small businesses that are key to the community and attract larger franchises instead. The MTA is also taking away property by eminent domain (the government right to take private property for public use), further changing the neighborhood. 

Others are concerned about the MTA’s financial choices and the disproportionate amount of money being spent compared to the number of stations being added (only three so far). The spacious layout of the new stations has been criticized as an unreasonable waste of money, space, and effort. 

Although the MTA is only in the early stages of Phase Two, the Second Avenue Subway extension is already affecting New York City’s commutes and communities. This influence will only increase as the project transitions into later phases in the coming decades: Phase Three will stretch the Q line below 63rd street to Houston street, and Phase Four will reintroduce the T line by continuing the extension all the way to Hanover Square in Lower Manhattan. But first, check out the East Side’s new stations with an appreciation of all the work that went into them. 

Phase Two will carve out millions of cubic feet of dirt and rock, add three new stations up to 125th Street, and lessen crowds during rush hour.