When you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.
I think of Will Rogers’ famous advice every time I set eyes on the construction project allegedly leading to a Second Avenue subway.
I say “allegedly” because this project is 80 years behind schedule. First proposed in 1929, it succumbed to the Great Depression. Attempted revivals in the 1950s and 1970s were abandoned for similar reasons.
I say “allegedly” because all evidence suggests that the Metropolitan Transit Authority is incapable of operating transparently and in the public interest.
Remember the 2003 accounting scandal, in which it was revealed that the MTA kept two sets of books, secretly moving a half billion dollar surplus from one year to the next in order justify a fare increase?
Remember the mob scandal, in which the lead developer of the agency’s new headquarters at 2 Broadway turned out to be a Gambino associate and the Director of Facility Operation and Support accepted more than half a million dollars worth of bribes?
Remember Board member Nancy Shevell partying in London with her boyfriend, ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, as the agency voted to approve a 30 percent fare increase?
At the moment, the Second Avenue subway is scheduled to be completed by 2015. The official estimated cost of connecting 125th Street to the Financial District is over $4 billion.
But the financial crisis has already led to cutbacks. In March, the MTA capital construction committee voted to simplify the design of the planned station at 72nd street, saving an estimated $90 million. More troubling, the agency says it has a $1.2 billion hole in its budget and is asking the state for a bailout.
But who will bail out Second Avenue’s small business owners?
There are dead or dying storefronts everywhere. Gone is the little mom-and-pop wine shop. The Rainbow store at 94th will soon give way, to be replaced by a station entrance. The Big Easy bar is closing for a month to allow drilling in the basement.
“It is literally destroying every business on Second Avenue,” said Mayor Bloomberg recently.
Concrete barriers line the sidewalk from 91st to 95th street. Enormous cranes tower overhead. Giant yellow pile drivers, front loaders, and backhoes are parked on nearly every corner.
In subway construction lingo, the work these machines do is called “cut and cover” – a name which conveys the general atmosphere along these boulevards.
As a community, we are entering the second year of this six day-a-week cutting-and-covering. Last year’s crane collapse at 91st and First Avenue is still fresh in people’s minds. Apartment dwellers in the neighborhood’s taller buildings are surely unnerved by the sight of giant steel hooks dangling at eye level outside their windows. Down below, the welder’s torch and the morning hammer have replaced birdsong and cherry blossom as heralds of spring.
Residents and business owners alike are being asked to bear a significant psychic burden. There is an acute sense of menace that accompanies close proximity to heavy machinery.
Some of the digging along Second Avenue is being done by hand because of the dense tangle of subterranean wires and pipes. The sight of workers wielding shovels makes me wonder what the MTA will do if the money runs out, like it has so many times before. Will they decide to stop digging?
And if they do, will it have been worth it?