Thursday’s groundbreaking for the Second Avenue subway will be a huge victory for the new chief executive of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, but the hardest part may lie ahead—finding the money to complete a project that has been abandoned twice before.
Elliot (Lee) Sander, Governor Eliot Spitzer’s pick to lead the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, had been advocating for the subway line from outside of government for 10 years before assuming his present post in January. Now, with more than 40 percent of the funds committed and another 35 percent on the way, Mr. Sander says that the subway—or at least the first 33-block leg of it—has no choice but to happen.
But this $3.8 billion first segment of the train line, which will run from 96th Street south to 63rd Street and which should be finished in 2013, is competing against numerous other transportation priorities, each of which carries a price tag in the billions of dollars.
“Given the roughly billion dollars we need, it certainly will be a challenge to find that money, particularly while maintaining our normal state of good repairs,” Mr. Sander told The Observer. “But having attempted to do the project twice, having part of the tunnel built, having three-quarters of the money done—basically, for the fully funded grant agreement that we signed with the federal government—we are pretty much committed for coming up with the matching funds. While I think it still will not be easy, I think it’s very doable, and I think it will get done.”
THE IDEA TO DRAW A PARALLEL route to supplement the Lexington Avenue line was first proposed in 1929 and then again in the 1970’s, and both times fell victim to budget crises.
In the mid-1990’s, as ridership reached a breaking point on the East Side, the idea again picked up momentum among urban planners and the rank-and-file M.T.A. bureaucracy. In 1996, Mr. Sander, who was leaving his post as city transportation commissioner and retreating to the private sector, was a skeptic of the project at the time.
“This has been done before and abandoned,” Mr. Sander, 50, recalled himself thinking at the time. “Initially, when you look at it, it doesn’t seem like it is opening up new territory. To really appreciate the importance of Second Avenue, you have to look a little past the surface. And certainly the argument of decongesting the Lexington line is important, but it goes beyond that in terms of the need to provide the capacity to get more people into a central business district.”
It was Robert Yaro, the president of the Regional Plan Association, who changed Mr. Sander’s mind. And as Mr. Sander went on to hold positions simultaneously at New York University and DMJM Harris, a major engineering firm, he and Mr. Yaro became two of the subway line’s biggest advocates.
More than that, they founded the Empire State Transportation Alliance, a consortium that was able to pair transit advocates who thought a new subway made for good policy with the people who would benefit financially from building it: unions and contractors.
That combination created a potent, well-connected lobbying force to steer public funds to the subway, including $450 million from a state bond act that was passed in 2005.
That money, along with other state funds, will cover $1.7 billion of the first segment’s cost. Another $1.3 billion from the federal government is widely expected to be committed this year. But the source of about another $850 million in local funds is much less certain. People have not even begun talking about how to finance the rest of the line, which will ultimately stretch from lower Manhattan to East Harlem and is expected to cost billions more.
Meanwhile, Mr. Sander has yet to convince everyone of the value of the Second Avenue line. The Partnership for New York City, a group of business executives, published a study four years ago that, while not opposing the new subway, found that other projects, including a $6 billion rail link from lower Manhattan to Kennedy Airport, or the $2.1 billion No. 7 subway extension, would bring greater economic development.
“All of these projects are competing for limited funding,” Kathryn Wylde, the partnership’s president, told The Observer. “From an economic-development standpoint, because the East Side is fully developed, the Second Avenue subway did not score particularly high with our metrics. Judging from the point of view of what a transportation improvement adds to the convenience and comfort of riders, in that it supplements a heavily utilized system, it might make sense.”
THE SON OF GERMAN JEWISH EXILES who fled the Nazis, Mr. Sander prides himself on leading by example. He rides the Long Island Rail Road in to work every morning from his home in Douglaston, Queens, and takes buses and subways “80 percent of the time” to get to meetings. Though he is one of the state’s highest-paid workers, earning $340,000 a year in total compensation, Mr. Sander introduces himself to subway workers as he walks through stations and wears a necklace with his ID card even when sitting in his office. Moreover, that office, at the M.T.A’s Madison Avenue headquarters, is nothing special: The predominant color is burgundy, like the vests that subway-station workers wear.
A graduate of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, Mr. Sander had no particular interest in transportation until he got his first job in the field as deputy director of the city’s parking division in the 1980’s. From there, he went on to run the Manhattan bus system, became the transit director for the state transportation department and eventually was appointed to be Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s transportation commissioner.
Eventually—maybe very soon—Mr. Sander is expected to replace Peter Kalikow, the M.T.A. chairman who was appointed by Governor George Pataki, and to hold three M.T.A. positions at once: chairman, chief executive and executive director. Although Governor Spitzer has volubly signaled his desire to replace Mr. Kalikow, the real-estate executive and former owner of the New York Post has said that he would stay on until he saw the future of the Second Avenue subway secure. When asked whether that would be shortly after Thursday’s groundbreaking, Mr. Kalikow told The Observer this week that it would be “in the near future.”
The two men, Mr. Sander said, “had a really good transition,” and they both compliment each other in the way that people competing for ownership of a project do. (Mr. Sander: “Peter has been an integral part of that team.”) While Mr. Sander campaigned with his alliance of unions, contractors and planners, Mr. Kalikow worked the federal angle, twice bringing Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, then-chairman of the transportation appropriations subcommittee, up to New York to show him how the Lexington Avenue line looked during rush hour.
“The most important thing we did was, we would bring down a group to Washington, and Lee was great at that,” Mr. Kalikow said. “He held that group together.”
Last month, Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, who will be one of the eight or nine officials at Thursday’s groundbreaking, issued what sounded like a warning to Mr. Sander and others who may be getting a little too giddy about the new subway line.
“We need to recognize that there are a lot of priorities to maintain the system, to build the system, and we believe that we need to build it beyond what we are planning today,” he told several hundred transportation planners at a meeting of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council. “But the money has to come from somewhere. If, in fact, we don’t know where it is going to come from, it’s a pretty good indication that we may not end up with what we want.”
Mr. Doctoroff later told The Observer that he supports the Second Avenue subway but wanted to encourage people to think about “innovative” revenue sources so that all the region’s transportation projects get done. He pointed to his own plan to extend the No. 7 line with revenues raised from tax payments by developers now that Hudson Yards has been rezoned to accommodate super-large office towers.
“I was always positive about the Second Avenue subway, but I admit I was a victim of that competition for funding,” Mr. Doctoroff said. “And everybody has been. Everybody has their own favorite project—but that doesn’t mean that many of these projects aren’t critical for the future of the city of New York.”
The Citizens Budget Commission, a business-backed fiscal-watchdog group, has suggested that the M.T.A. fund capital projects through a congestion-pricing system, which would impose charges on cars driven into central Manhattan via tunnels or bridges or from above 59th Street.
“I think Lee is a very dedicated and hard- working guy, and he is trying to figure out the best way to do everything,” said Charles Brecher, the executive vice president of the commission. “But you focus on getting money for getting new things started, and look at what happens to existing things.”
MR. SANDER AND MR. DOCTOROFF HAVE MET repeatedly since January, and both say that each has warmed to the other’s project. But Mr. Sander has objected to a provision he inherited from the Pataki administration that holds the M.T.A. responsible for cost overruns to the No. 7 extension.
“I have not changed my position—nor has Dan—about who does what if there are cost overruns,” Mr. Sander said. “But we are both in full agreement that it is not prudent to go there until we see where the bids are.”
Mr. Sander added that he is considering various funding mechanisms to raise money for completing the subway, but he wouldn’t get into specifics. He also said that the M.T.A.’s first priority would continue to be maintaining the current level of service.
Mr. Sander, however, believes that the Nos. 4, 5 and 6 subway lines are so crowded that the congestion will soon limit—if it hasn’t already—the number of workers and customers who can travel into midtown. Plus, he said, the Sept. 11 attacks taught the value of having more than one way to get around the city.
“Every time I go down to 42nd Street and Lexington and I see the hordes of people, I say to myself, ‘How can one possibly question not having a Second Avenue subway?’” he said. “At the end of the day, as I looked at this city and the region, I just have felt in my gut—and I know I am not alone with this—that the city will not be able to compete with London, Shanghai, or handle another million people if we did not do Second Avenue as well as some other improvements. And, in my view, Second Avenue is the most important of those.”