Last Subway: The Long Wait for the Next Train in New York City, by Philip Mark Plotch, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2020.
Reviewed by: Jeffrey A. Kroessler, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
In this highly recommended history of the Second Avenue subway, Philip Mark Plotch unravels the tortured route from promise to conception and construction, but really, this is about politics. The Second Avenue subway is a very fine lens to understand the post-war city.
In 1922, Mayor John Hylan promised to replace the old elevated (built in 18 months, that 7.5 mile line opened in 1880). The elevated was demolished in 1942. Seventy-five years later, Governor Andrew Cuomo cut the ribbon opening the new subway.
The cost? At $4.6 billion, it was the most expensive transit project in the world. And New Yorkers did not even get the full line, only Phase 1, a mile-and a half “stubway” from 63rd to 96th Streets. “Given the extraordinary cost and lengthy construction period,” Plotch writes, “the Second Avenue subway will more than likely be the last subway line built in New York for generations to come.” (4).
As in Plotch’s previous book, Politics Across the Hudson, about rebuilding the Tappan Zee Bridge, Governor Andrew Cuomo looms large. He bullied contractors and agencies to meet his January 1, 2017 deadline. Perhaps it took a bully.
Plotch identifies three reasons for the excessive cost: “(1) inefficient phasing and high real estate costs, (2) powerful unions earning high wages and dictating costly work rules, and (3) regulations and environmental sensitivities.” His pessimistic assessment is that neither the MTA nor New York’s elected officials are likely to address these factors, since they relate to issues and problems they are loath to confront.” Not a promising outlook for phases 2, 3, and 4.
The full book review will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs.
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