clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Planned Subway Lines That Never Got Built—And Why

New, 31 comments

Welcome back to Curbed's Could Have Been, where we investigate some of the most outlandish proposals that were never built. Know of a plan that never saw the light of day? Send it to the tipline.

Joseph Raskin's The Routes Not Taken is a saddening read—the story of how money, indecision, ego, and short-term political gain prevented the construction of numerous subway lines in New York City.

We could sorely use several of those today, such as a rail connection to Staten Island and another Brooklyn-Queens transverse. It's probably too late, unfortunately; infrastructure costs, particularly to purchase property, are now prohibitively expensive. On some routes, notably on First and Second Avenues in Manhattan and on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn, Select Bus Service has taken hold as the best alternative.

A central villain in this saga, as you might expect, was Robert Moses, the all-powerful head of the Triborough Bridge & Tunnel Authority for several decades. He had a well-known preference for cars over people, and succeeded in shutting down several no-brainer options, such as rail service—or even a pedestrian lane—over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.

For those of you who like pie-in-the-sky depictions of what the subway could like had our forebears been more forward-thinking, have a look at vanshookenraggen's Future NYC Subway map. For now, though, here's a brief discussion of some specific lines in the network that could have been.

Staten Island (& New Jersey, Sorta)

"Five or ten years from now—when the subway to Staten Island is built—… some Doubting Thomases of New Yorkers who don't buy will be shedding tears at their lack of foresight."

Wood, Harmon & Co. made that pitch in 1912. Over a century later, the subway still doesn't run to Staten Island—in part, as Ben Kabak of Second Avenue Sagas points out, because Staten Island politicians have contradictory transportation priorities.

On April 14, 1923, Mayor John Hylan broke ground on the Narrows Tunnel in Bay Ridge. The city intended to use it for freight to and from the proposed Jamaica Bay industrial harbor. Critics painted the tunnel as a folly at the expense of real subway lines, and only 150 feet were completed before it was abandoned. (Whether it's still down there, I've been unable to confirm. Perhaps Bob Diamond is looking for something to do.)

Every so often, a proposal comes along to revive the idea. After Chris Christie nixed Access to the Region's Core (ARC), a second train tunnel to Penn Station needed to reduce congestion, State Senator Diane Savino suggested $3 billion of that money should be used for rail service between Staten Island and Brooklyn.

A shorter-lived idea was to run tracks over what's now John F. Kennedy Boulevard in New Jersey, with connections to the Staten Island Railway (via a tunnel and waterfront tracks) to the south and today's Journal Square PATH station to the north, possibly with an extension to Fort Lee and the George Washington Bridge. According to Raskin, that plan "faded away after a few days of coverage." It's still neat to think about an inter-borough connection by way of our neighbor to the west, particularly with the calls to extend the 7 line to Secaucus.


The 2 and 5 trains currently terminate at Brooklyn College, but the original intent was to continue that line down Nostrand Avenue another three miles to Sheepshead Bay. The recently inaugurated B44 Select Bus Service now makes that journey.

Another proposal included a line down Utica Avenue, connecting to several other services: what are today the 3, 4, A, C, J, M, and Z trains. It's not quite as exciting as the much-vaunted Triboro Rx, but the Utica Avenue line would have been a prescription for better access to job centers for several out-of-the-way Brooklyn neighborhoods.

The Bronx & Queens

Our transit problems to area airports are well-documented, but things could have been different. At one point there was a plan for subway service to a new airfield in the Bronx, near the Westchester border. Even the Army, when it wanted to build a strip there during WWII, met fierce resistance from Robert Moses. Curtiss Airport never materialized, and instead of runways, Co-op City now stands.

Even today, getting to LaGuardia could be a lot easier—if residents along any of several proposed routes would allow for a new elevated line. Of course, that's never going to happen; at least in the meantime we're getting Select Bus Service on the M60, which cuts across 125th Street in Harlem.

There were several minor cross-Bronx extensions under consideration at various times, as well as better light rail to the northeast Bronx, any one of which would have provided improved service and property values today.

The funny thing: property owners knew this, and they wanted an elevated train to rumble down their streets. Squabbles at the highest levels of city and state government, however, brought the plan to its knees. As it did with Nostrand, the MTA will soon institute bus rapid transit on this thoroughfare, as well.


For last, an in-your-face reminder that procrastination 80 years ago is costing us dearly as we construct a vital lifeline to the Upper East Side.

Various proposals for a Second Avenue Subway date from as early as 1929. Something or another has always gotten in the way: the Great Depression; political horse-trading; shortsighted-but-vocal residents. (The image at right includes a proposed Second Avenue Subway from 1948, slightly different from today's plan.) Phase 1 is expected to be completed in 2016 (don't hold your breath); the full line will never happen might open as early as 2029.

The Upper East Side needs it badly. The Lexington Avenue Line—the 4/5/6—is already maxed out during rush hour, and the M15 SBS can't pick up enough of the slack, particularly with the deference our city shows to private automobiles. (Thanks to an agreement brokered after our financial near-collapse in the 1970s, we have to grovel to Albany any time we want to make a change to our traffic laws, like congestion pricing.)

But all of that waiting comes at a cost, particularly with purchasing property for needed aboveground units, like ventilation buildings. With local residents no longer willing to tolerate the noise and inconvenience of construction, future builds—for lines once envisioned, or those that could get proposed down the line—appear unlikely.
—Keith Williams
· The Routes Not Taken: A Trip Through New York City's Unbuilt Subway System [Amazon]
· Curbed's Could Have Been archive [Curbed]