What is up with the #%¿@!&* subway?
Well, it seems Roosevelt Island has been caught, is caught, and will be caught for a while in New York City’s leap into a transportation future envisioned at the beginning of the last century. That’s right, the first mention of a Second Avenue subway happened back in 1919.
The 63rd Street tunnel – our tunnel, the one that takes Islanders under the East River on F trains – is at the center of this transportation leap. Engineers in the ’60s designed it as a state-of-the-art tunnel, one that has more capacity than every other East River tunnel, for a future that has yet to arrive, bristling with all kinds of multi-line and multi-rail transferring. After a long hibernation, it’s finally on its way.
The Department of City Planning presented a study regarding transportation in Western Queens and Roosevelt Island at last week’s meeting of the Roosevelt Island Committee of Community Board 8. It focused on pedestrian, bicycle, and transit improvements. But until a resident inquired, nobody mentioned the elephant in the room: There has been limited or no F service on Roosevelt Island for how many weekends? For how many years of weekends?
The short answer is that our 63rd Street tunnel is the focal point for long-planned transportation-improvement projects that will leverage the tunnel’s potential as envisioned back in the late 1960s. An advantage is that it ties in neatly with a new route for the Q train on the Second Avenue subway line.
Second Avenue Subway
The cause of our weekend disruptions – last weekend, this weekend, future weekends – is construction of the Second Avenue line. If that seems strange, stay tuned. The result will be transfers between the F and Q lines at 63rd Street and Lexington Avenue.
That station’s platforms were built as “islands,” with tracks on both sides. That hasn’t been evident because of a temporary wall – think orange tile – that had decades of “temporary” before being replaced with blue-painted construction barriers. On the other side of those barriers, there’s the other half of a platform and another set of tracks. For years, the only action on those hidden tracks was train storage. Now, there’s construction, too.
In May, the orange walls were removed (and replaced with the blue-board barriers) to allow those tracks to be drafted into active service. That’ll happen by December 2016, according to the MTA. Cross-platform transfers between the F and Q will be the Phase One evidence of the coming Second Avenue subway line.
But this is not your father’s Q line.
In its new incarnation, the Q will run down Second Avenue from 96th Street, stopping at 86th and 72nd before veering west to 63rd/Lex, where Q riders will be able to transfer across the platform to the F (whose route won’t change). The Q will no longer serve Astoria. (See map on page 1.) These three new subway stops and the introduction of the Q constitute Phase One of the Second Avenue subway line.
Four new entrances at Third Avenue and 63rd Street will provide access to the existing station at 63rd/Lex. Judlau Contracting, which describes itself as “a leader in the heavy construction industry,” will build the new entrances, and will also convert the upper- and lower-level platforms from one-sided to islands. At Third Avenue, the new entrances and control areas will have five elevators and two escalators. The station work is to be completed by January 2015, says the MTA in its Second Avenue subway newsletter.
East Side Access
Even then, weekend subway disruptions will continue.
Thats because the transportation master plan includes a transfer connection, at 63rd/Lex, with the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR). That part of the plan also has some history.
The 63rd Street tunnel, an engineering marvel that runs 3,140 feet along the bed of the East River and through the bedrock under Roosevelt Island, was built with two levels. There are subways in two directions on the upper level, and the LIRR’s future East Side Access service on the lower level. That LIRR service will curve across to Park Avenue and down to Grand Central Terminal. Those operations are scheduled to start in 2018, and, in 2019, to move to a new terminal below Grand Central. Plans call for 24 trains an hour during peak morning hours, with an estimated 162,000 passenger trips to and from Grand Central on an average weekday. Connections to the AirTrain at Jamaica Station will facilitate travel to JFK Airport from Manhattan’s east side.
Activation of the subway tunnel under Roosevelt Island did not come without pain to Island pioneers, who had to wait until 1989, when subway service got started just a month shy of 20 years from its construction start date. For the 24 years since, the orange walls have been up at 63rd/Lex, and the lower level has been dormant. So dormant, in fact, that in the course of recent construction, workers discovered a man who had made himself at home for years at 63rd/Lex in an overlooked room that he equipped with stolen power, a hot plate, and a flat-screen TV.
The East Side Access project is likely to increase passenger loads on the already overcrowded Lexington Avenue line (4, 5, and 6). It’s the busiest rapid transit line in the United States, with more daily riders than Boston, San Francisco, and Chicago combined. That underscores the need for the Second Avenue line.
The Second Avenue Subway
Phase Two of the Second Avenue subway project will extend the Q to 125th Street, adding stations at 106th, 116th, and 125th. Phase Three will introduce the Second Avenue T line and extend it down to Houston Street. And someday, the final phase will complete the T line, far downtown at Hanover Square.
Unfortunately, F-riding Islanders who want to use the T will have to either walk down to its 55th Street station from 63rd/Lex, or cross over at 63rd, take the Q one stop uptown to 72nd, then cross over to board the downtown T.
Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney has been a champion of the Second Avenue line. In a July press release, she stated that Phase One will be completed by its scheduled end date of December 2016. She adds that all necessary funds for Phase One have been committed.
But there is no timeline for the rest of the Second Avenue subway project, and no funds have yet been committed. That is worrisome when taking into account that it was first suggested by New York State Public Service Commission Chief Engineer Daniel Turner in 1919.
The Second Avenue subway was delayed by the Great Depression, World War II, and the 1975 financial crisis, to mention a few factors. It’s had more than its share of groundbreakings. “So tangled is history, that when ground was broken on April 12, 2007, for its latest incarnation, no one was sure whether this was the third or fourth groundbreaking for the subway,” say the authors of The Wheels that Drove New York: A History of the New York City Transit System.
A rerouted Q, cross-platform transfers between the Q and F, 63rd/Lex station entrances at Third and 63rd, an LIRR connection, a new terminal under Grand Central, the Second Avenue T line – they’re all part of a grand plan, and, for now and the foreseeable future, the reason behind Roosevelt Island’s oft-curtailed weekend subway service.