Text Size

Now Arriving: The Second Avenue Subway Opens

Photo: João Enxuto
It’s so clean in here!” “It smells so nice!” “This is really beautiful.” These comments were overheard not at the opening of a new store or art installation, but rather on a weekday morning in the 72nd Street station on the just opened Second Avenue Subway (SAS) line. People took selfies with mosaics. A cellist played in a full tuxedo. Our first visit to the Second Avenue Subway felt less like a typical transit ride and more like an immersion in New York City’s vibrant cultural scene. The much-anticipated new subway line took its first trip on January 1, 2017. The line from 63rd to 96th streets is expected to serve over 200,000 people per day, reducing overcrowding on the Lexington Avenue line by as much as 13 percent and restoring a transit link lost when the Second Avenue elevated train ended service in the 1940s. The project was a true marriage of architecture, engineering and even art in the heart of New York City, so it comes as no surprise that graduates of The Cooper Union have played key roles in its 70-year history. We talked to a number of them to better understand the complexity of this megaproject.

In 2015, 1.76 billion rides were taken on the subway, the highest number recorded since 1948. Over 5.7 million people ride the subway on a typical weekday. The century-old system runs 24/7 and struggles to keep up with New York City’s surging population. Maintaining existing service on 36 lines and 472 stations is a herculean task. But in a state where the motto means “ever upward” (“Excelsior” is engraved in the new Second Avenue stations), expanding service to accommodate more riders has been a longstanding priority. The SAS first appeared on New York City’s agenda in 1920 as part of an ambitious expansion plan. A Harlem to Houston Street line costing $800 million was approved in 1929, but was tabled when the stock market crashed.

At left, the Third Avenue elevated line, photo from The Cooper Union Archives
New York City’s transit system was previously a combination of elevated and underground train lines. The Second and Third Avenue elevated lines serviced the east side of Manhattan and were a vital link for Cooper Union’s commuting students in the early 20th century. As the subway system expanded, elevated lines, blamed for noise and blight, were torn down. Since the demolition of the east side els, the Lexington Avenue 4/5/6 line has been the primary option for residents, as evidenced by the rush-hour crowds. A 1947 New York Times article about the dire need for a replacement line read, “It is essential to take the strain off existing parallel lines now so crowded during rush hours that if cattle in transit were subjected to such treatment it would be a matter for humane society prosecution.” Sixty years later, the conditions had not improved.

“The 4/5/6 trains would run faster if they weren’t so crowded,” says Peter Cafiero CE’83, director of operations planning for the MTA. “There are bottlenecks at popular stations such as Grand Central and 68th Street–Hunter College, which further adds to the congestion.” Cafiero’s department is responsible for designing and implementing efficient bus and rail service in New York City. This means planning routes, determining service frequency and improving performance and customer experience. His team has been involved in the project since the early 1990s, working on the Manhattan East Side Transit Alternatives Study, which revived the SAS plan. Some progress was made in the 20th century, including a groundbreaking in October 1972 and tunnel sections built at Canal, 105th and 120th streets. But when the city went bankrupt in the 1970s, construction was halted. In 2007, the phase I plan was approved and ground was then broken—again.

Once construction began on phase I, it took almost 10 years before the first Second Avenue train sped through a station. While newspapers took every opportunity to highlight the sluggish progress in the headlines (“A Century of Delays and Disappointments!”)*, building a whole new subway line is no quick feat. Two 30-block-long tunnels were dug, displacing over 15 million cubic feet of rock and 6 million cubic feet of soil (over 200,000 yards of total material). Even the digging wasn’t straightforward. The geological characteristics of the area dictated the phases of construction, as there were obvious break points where the type of underground material changed. Between 63rd and 92nd streets is Manhattan schist, a hard rock that can be efficiently drilled using a tunnel boring machine. North of 92nd Street is dirt, requiring a shallow cut-and-cover method that excavates material directly from the surface, which is more disruptive to traffic and the surrounding area. Nevertheless, the multiple engineering and construction ventures hired for the job completed the work without ever stopping traffic on Second Avenue, as was true when the original subway lines were built.

At right, the tunnel boring machine, photo by Alaeden Jlelaty
“In a complex project like this, most of your time is dedicated to problem solving. It’s really half science and half art,” says Alaeden Jlelaty CE’84/MCE’88, project manager for the construction company Skanska, who oversaw the contracts on phase I. “This was the perfect project for Cooper Union alumni to handle.”

Three brand-new stations were built and the 63rd Street station was renovated to include a cross-platform train connection to the F train. As station planners, Cafiero and his team worked with designers to meet their capacity goals while minimizing impacts to the community. The resulting modern stations are designed to different standards and with different principles than their older counterparts. Rather than multiple entrances at the street level that direct you to a specific point on the route, one or two main entrances flank each end of the stop, with long escalators leading to a mezzanine level. From the mezzanine, customers enter the turnstile and can access both directions of the train from multiple points. The open, arched ceilings fill with light; the large walkways and platforms are reminiscent of public plazas. Moving forward, the MTA plans to implement these new design guidelines, which make the stations more accessible and also more hospitable.

Once the line was in construction, the MTA Capital Construction agency (MTACC) took the lead while the MTA focused on operating and rebuilding the existing system. The MTACC was formed in 2003 to manage mega transit projects such as the SAS and the East Side Access project connecting the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal. MTA departments supported the MTACC when necessary, especially in the final stretch. “There was a push by our agency in the months and weeks prior to opening for testing and commissioning the new line,” Peter Cafiero says. “We will continue to make adjustments along the way. Customers are still learning the stations and the tools we have created to make full use of the service.”
At left, Jean Shin's Elevated series, photo by João Enxuto
MTA Arts & Design also commissioned dynamic public art in the Second Avenue stations from Chuck Close, Vik Muniz, Jean Shin and Sarah Sze. The Cooper Union is present in the mix— Chuck Close’s iconic portrait of Alex Katz A’49, Alex (1993), is included in his series in the 72nd Street station, and Jean Shin’s Elevated series at the 63rd Street station depicts historic scenes from the east side’s past, including the Third Avenue elevated sweeping past the Foundation Building.

The architecture and engineering curricula at Cooper Union continue to include preparatory courses for the type of work involved in a project such as the Second Avenue Subway. Larry Lennon CE’78 teaches Urban Transportation Planning at the Albert Nerken School of Engineering, a course that reviews the relationship between land use and travel. “Transportation is a field that touches everyone every day. As transportation’s role in economic development, and its impact on quality of life, have become better understood and appreciated, it has led to more ambitious capital programs and more challenging projects,” he says. “I see our students bringing new energy and new ideas to the profession as they apply new information technology, data processing, communications, project visualization and design innovations to the projects they manage.”

Dramatis personae

Peter Cafiero first became interested in rail transportation as a Cooper student commuting from New Jersey. “During my freshman year there was a two-week subway strike. We were in the middle of midterms and were still expected to make it to school,” he remembers. “It was then that I became interested in learning why trains go where they go and work or don’t work. I knew I had to learn more or I would go crazy as a commuter.” After almost 30 years spent at the MTA, he has become an expert in understanding subway service needs, rider behavior and route planning. He was involved with many of the preliminary planning stages of the SAS as early as 1994, including the environmental impact statement, community outreach and geotechnical investigation. “Rarely in your career do you have the opportunity to be part of a project this big from the beginning to the end,” he says. “I went from seeing cross sections of earth and where the tunnel should be to going in the ground and seeing it tunneled to seeing a completed train line. I was lucky to be part of it and part of the team.”

The MTA actively engaged the Upper East Side community throughout the process, starting with community planning meetings. Once the construction began, the MTA published a monthly newsletter and created the Second Avenue Subway Community Information Center to serve as a hub for information. Cecilia Ye has lived on the Upper East Side since 2012. Her commute to SoHo has been reduced by 10 minutes since the opening of the Q line in her neighborhood. Ye previously worked as an engineer at Skanska and was able to visit the construction site in progress. “I feel the scale of the engineering and construction efforts that went into building this line is way more than what meets the eyes of subway commuters,” she says. “Having seen only a small bit of its construction, I certainly have a deeper appreciation of seeing the first phase of SAS finally opened to the public!”

Megastructures, a Cooper Union class taught by Anthony Candido, sparked Visar Aliu’s interest in large-scale projects. He joined AECOM in 2014 and asked to work on the SAS project, joining the team in the spring of 2016. This happened to be the final construction phase for the stations. “I came at the right time—it was the last push!” he says. “We would sketch by hand; then the contractors would build things right away. It was truly great exposure for a young architect.” As a field architect, he spent a lot of time meeting with the construction managers and resolving issues on site. “A lot was done in the last eight months. It was kind of like pulling an all-nighter before a final at Cooper,” he says.

David Plotkin joined AECOM and the SAS project in late 2006 in the early stages of final design. He brought decades of experience in building and tunnel ventilation system engineering, starting with The Cooper Union Foundation Building renovation soon after graduating. “That was my first experience of the challenge of adding new systems into an existing space for a particular need,” he tells us. This is a common challenge in designing subway ventilation systems. Ventilation systems in the tunnels and stations are necessary to create a comfortable environment for passengers when trains are operating normally, but also to respond to congestion and especially to a fire emergency. “The essence is to manage smoke flows in tunnels and stations to keep an egress path clear of smoke,” he explains. “In open air, smoke goes up and away. In an enclosed space, smoke is trapped as if in an inverted bucket. In the tunnel, we design systems to make the smoke move one way or the other. In the station, we maintain a clear path to safety.” The performance of the structure and mechanical systems as a whole is essential for operations and safety.

The MTA defines the work of excavating, tunneling and laying the tracks as “heavy civil engineering.” As the project manager at Skanska, Alaeden Jlelaty led this work for the 63rd through 96th Street section of the line. His team built the launch box, an underground support structure with slurry and secant walls, that served as the below surface entry point for crews and machinery. “It was like putting a football stadium underground in the middle of Second Avenue,” Jlelaty says. Creating the launch box and relocating utilities, necessary steps to begin tunneling, took about a year and a half. Their digging mechanism, the tunnel boring machine (TBM), had to be lowered into the ground piece by piece, then assembled. The TBM is a two-story, 2.5 million-pound mechanical marvel. TBMs have the advantages of limiting the disturbance to the surrounding ground and producing a smooth and stable tunnel wall. They excavate tunnels with a circular blade, applying a force equivalent to 16 Boeing 747 airplanes. Once the TBM was in action, the speed was unpredictable. “We had a few days where we exceeded 100 feet and some days where we barely moved a fraction of a foot,” Jlelaty says.