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New York's Long-Awaited Second Avenue Subway Finally Leaves The Station

Jan 2, 2017
Originally published on January 3, 2017 2:50 pm

Hundreds came out New Year's Day to ride the train in New York City, cheering as it left the station. That may sound odd, but this wasn't just any subway or any old station, it was the stuff of urban legend: the Second Avenue subway line.

To understand the crowd, you have to go back to the 1920s when the idea for the subway line was first floated, but never left the station because the Depression hit.

The idea was revived again in the 1950s as a replacement for the elevated trains, but city planner Robert Moses decided to spend money building expressways instead.

In 1968, the city finally got federal funding to build a subway on Second Avenue. It was expected to cost $220 million. The TV show Mad Men even worked in a reference to the plan when Peggy Olson, one of the main characters, goes apartment hunting on the East Side that year on the show.

But it didn't happen because in 1975 the city was broke.

By the 1990s overcrowding on the sole East side line had become untenable so the idea for a Second Avenue subway line was revived, and in 2004, a plan was approved. The first phase would include three new stations that go from 72nd Street to 96th Street. The Metropolitan Transit Authority even gave a deadline: 2013. And a cost: $3.8 billion.

But the public was skeptical, as that deadline was pushed back to 2015 and costs crept up. The MTA finally settled on Dec. 31, 2016.

On New Year's Eve, at a newly renovated station on 72nd Street, Gov. Andrew Cuomo held an opening night party. There was a five-piece band, a newsstand was converted into a beer bar, and the cavernous station was filled with purple, pink and orange lights. The governor helped secure more than a billion dollars in federal funding for the project and the MTA, and appoints their board members. At the New Year's Eve party he told the more than 500 invited guests that the Second Avenue Subway is vindication of his vision.

"We needed to show people that government works and we can still do big things and great things and we can still get them done," Cuomo said.

The final cost for the three stations, and two miles of track was $4.5 billion. And on Sunday morning, it officially opened to the public.

"I am so excited. I've been waiting for this for years and I'm thrilled to be on the first train," said 50-year-old Lillian Redl.

Redl, who lives nearby, says the new line will shave nearly 20 minutes off her commute. And the new stations filled with colorful tile art, including 12 portraits by the artist Chuck Close, are snazzy.

"I love the high ceilings, it looks like there might be some soundproofing so I'm really pleased about that," she said.

And this announcement is sweet music to her ears: "This is a Brooklyn-bound Q train via the Second Avenue line."

Nine-year-old train enthusiast Jared Margulis was impressed with the clean elevators, but had one suggestion: "I think they got to work on the train, because the train did not say the right stop that the train is going to."

Residents are concerned that the new line will also bring higher rents that could push long-time residents out. The next phase will extend the line to 125th Street and is estimated to cost $6 billion. Tunneling could start in the next two years.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For nearly a century, New Yorkers waited and waited for a subway extension along Second Avenue on Manhattan's east side. Yesterday, this urban legend came true. From member station WNYC in New York, Steven Nessen reports.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Cheering).

STEPHEN NESSEN, BYLINE: New Yorkers don't usually cheer when a subway leaves the station, but this wasn't just any subway or any old station. To understand why hundreds came out New Year's Day to ride a train, you have to go back to the 1920s. That's when the idea for a subway line on Second Avenue was first floated, but then the Depression hit. The idea was revived again in the 1950s as a replacement for the elevated trains.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: But the old steel skeleton outlived its usefulness. Passengers dwindled, and so the El is being torn down.

NESSEN: But city planner Robert Moses decided to spend money building expressways instead. In 1968, for the first time, the city got federal funding to build a subway on Second Avenue. It was expected to cost $220 million. The TV show "Mad Men" even worked in a reference to the plan that year.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAD MEN")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) Believe me, when they finish the Second Avenue Subway, this apartment will quadruple in value.

NESSEN: That didn't happen. In 1975, the city was broke. By the 1990s, overcrowding on the sole East Side line had become untenable so the idea for a second Avenue subway line was revived. And in 2004, a plan was approved. The first phase would include three new stations that go from 72nd to 96th St. The Metropolitan Transit Authority even gave a deadline - 2013, and a cost - $3.8 billion. But the public was skeptical, as that deadline was pushed back to 2015 and costs crept up. The MTA finally settled on December 31, 2016.

On New Year's Eve at a newly-renovated station on 72nd St., Governor Andrew Cuomo held an opening night party. There was a five-piece band. A newsstand was converted into a beer bar. And the cavernous station was filled with purple, pink and orange lights. Cuomo helped secure more than a billion dollars in federal funding for the project and the MTA. He also appoints their board members. At the New Year's Eve party, he told the more than 500 invited guests that the Second Avenue Subway is vindication of his vision.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW CUOMO: We needed to show people that government works, and we can still do big things and we can still get them done.

NESSEN: The final costs for the three stations and two miles of track was $4.5 billion. And on Sunday morning, it officially opened to the public.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Let's open up the subway.

NESSEN: Fifty-year-old old Lillian Redl, who lives nearby, was there.

LILLIAN REDL: I am so excited. I've been waiting for this for years, and I'm thrilled to be on the first train.

NESSEN: She says the new line will shave nearly 20 minutes off her commute. And the new station's filled with colorful tile art, including 12 portraits by the artist Chuck Close, are snazzy.

REDL: I love the high ceilings. It looks like there might be some soundproofing and I'm really pleased about that.

NESSEN: And this announcement is sweet music to her ears.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: This is a Brooklyn-bound Q train via the Second Avenue Line.

NESSEN: Nine-year-old train enthusiastic Jared Margulis was impressed with the clean elevators, but had one suggestion.

JARED MARGULIS: I think they got to work on the train because the train did not say the right stop the train is going to.

NESSEN: Residents are concerned that the new line will also bring higher rents that could push long-time tenants out. The next phase will extend the line to a 125th St. and is estimated to cost $6 billion. Tunneling could start in the next two years. For NPR News, I'm Stephen Nessen in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CURE SONG, "SUBWAY SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.