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As Second Avenue Subway prepares for its debut, cost of phase two is scrutinzed

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One thing everyone can agree on: the cost of building this line is too damn high

Photos courtesy governorandrewcuomo Flickr

Now that the first phase of the Second Avenue subway is poised to open, transit wonks and officials are looking ahead to Phase 2, which would extend the line to Harlem and add three new stations at 106th, 116th, and 125th Streets. Even though there’s not a set timeline—or even a start date—for work on that portion, there’s one thing that most people seem to agree on: the projected $6 billion price tag is too damn high.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast acknowledged that the cost of the line’s next phase is one of many factors that the agency is examining right now. “We always do a looking-back exercise to see could we have done something better,” he explained, but stopped short of saying that the first phase—which cost a staggering $4 billion to construct—was too much.

And of course, there are reasons why the subway cost that much: Putting infrastructure (like tunnels and tracks) in place, building three entirely new stations—each of which comes with its own challenges and expenses—and labor all add up, as Business Insider breaks down.

But $10 billion to construct what is, essentially, six subway stops, is a hard pill to swallow. A piece by mathematician Alon Levy cited by the WSJ found that the Second Avenue subway’s first phase cost approximately $1.7 billion per kilometer, making it one of the most expensive subway construction projects ever; if the projected $6 billion estimate for the next phase actually comes to pass, it would shatter that record by costing about $2.2 billion per kilometer.

Understandably, plenty of folks are not too pleased with that number. Here’s what some had to say:

From Levy, in that same piece:

In a world in which subways cost $60,000 per weekday rider and $2.2 billion per km, New York cannot extend the subway. If it has money in its budget for investment, it should look into things other than transportation, such as social housing or schools. Or it could not borrow money at all to pay for big projects, and in lieu of the money spent on interest, reduce taxes, or increase ongoing social spending.

On Second Avenue Sagas, writer Stephen Smith argued for citizens taking action over those high costs:

[I]t’s time for New Yorkers who care about transit to stand up and say enough is enough. Supporting transit in theory is one thing, but blind obedience to an agency whose primary goal is keeping labor, contractors and warring management fiefdoms happy is not helpful to the cause of better transit. Bringing costs back down to earth for New York’s subway projects wouldn’t be about saving money, but about building more transit.

Business Insider’s Josh Barro, in the all-too-accurately titled “New York's incredibly expensive new subway explains why we can't have nice things”:

Manhattan, of course, is a dense place with lots of existing stuff underground that complicates the digging of tunnels. Building a subway there will never be cheap. But infrastructure in New York isn't just expensive compared with younger, sparser cities. It's expensive compared with places like London and Paris — places that are also pretty old and also have well-compensated construction workers represented by powerful unions.

You get the idea. And for his part, Prendergast says that the MTA is examining options to make the planning and construction of Phase 2 more efficient: using a “design-build” model, where one firm is responsible for design and construction, for one, and looking at how the actual digging of the thing can be done more efficiently.

But will that be enough? Not everyone is optimistic, especially since a game plan for Phase 2 has yet to be announced. “The fact that these things are happening in piecemeal rather than a logical succession we think is as problem,” Jon Orcutt of TransitCenter told the Journal. (The fact that Phase 1 took as long as it did doesn’t help, either.)

At this point, all we can do is wait and see—and in just a few days, we’ll be able to gauge whether that $4 billion for Phase 1 was worth it after all.