New York Opens Its Second Avenue Subway

For New Yorkers, the opening of the Second Avenue Subway finally delivered the new subway line on Manhattan’s East Side that had been promised since the 1920s. For WSP, the Jan. 1 opening represented the latest milestone in a history of work on the city’s subway system that dates to the 1890s.

New Year, New Subway

The new line, which extends 1.8 miles under Second Avenue from 63rd Street to 96th Street, with new stations at 72nd Street, 86th Street and 96th Street, opened for revenue service on New Year’s Day. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was aboard the inaugural train, which left the 96th Street station a few minutes after noon.

“Rest assured I’m not driving the train,” Cuomo told the passengers, in a comment that recalled an episode in 1904 with the first train to run on the city’s subway. That train was piloted by then-Mayor George McClellan. By all accounts it was a thrilling ride as Mayor McClellan, who was asked to ceremonially start the train, refused to yield control as the train hurtled along the line from City Hall to 103rd Street at breakneck speed.

One of the dignitaries on board that day in 1904 was William Barclay Parsons, the subway’s chief engineer and the founder of Parsons Brinckerhoff. More than a century later, Parsons’s great-granddaughter, Kitty Benton, was on the inaugural train of Second Avenue Subway, along with her daughters and grandsons. “My great-grandfather’s vision has been vindicated,” Benton said.

A subway along Second Avenue was first proposed in 1920, but it was not until 1972 that construction began. The project was soon abandoned, however, because of the city’s fiscal crisis, and was not resumed until the 1990s, when the MTA announced plans to build an 8.5-mile subway along Second Avenue from Hanover Square in Lower Manhattan to 125th Street in Harlem.

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Commuters race to catch a ride on the new Second Avenue Subway on its opening day.

Managing Construction

A groundbreaking for phase 1 of the project, the segment from 63rd Street to 96th Street, was held in 2007. Since then, WSP has been the $4.4 billion project’s consultant construction manager, responsible for overseeing the work of contractors on behalf of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Capital Construction Company. The firm’s scope of work included resident engineering and inspection, constructability reviews, contract management and administration, project controls, utility coordination, commissioning and startup, and project closeout.

During much of the nine years of construction, WSP had an average of 120 people on site managing as many as eight construction contracts simultaneously. Doing so “required a lot of juggling,” said Tom Peyton, project director, who oversaw the firm’s work with Garry Nunes, principal-in-charge. Construction managers included Amitabha Mukherjee; Phil Rice; Martin Hall; David Frank; Martin Tagliaferro; and George Colban.

Phase 1 involved several methods of construction, including drill-and-blast and cut-and-cover tunneling, as well as excavation by a tunnel boring machine (TBM). Most of the running tunnels along Second Avenue were excavated by the TBM, with the 72nd and 86th Street stations and the connection to a connector tunnel to the existing 63rd Street Station excavated mostly through drill-and-blast. A section of tunnel from 92nd Street to 95th Street from which the TBM was launched, and the 96th Street station, were constructed by the cut-and-cover method.

On one section of tunnel, from 99th Street to 105th Street, no tunnel construction was involved as that segment was one of three tunnel sections excavated in the 1970s before construction was halted, and was renovated in order to be incorporated into the current project. The “tail track” north of the 96th Street Station will be used to store trains and for other uses related to the operation of the system.


The tunnel boring machine advanced an average of 50 feet a day when it was digging the Second Avenue Subway tunnel.

Meeting Construction Challenges

There were numerous unforeseen developments and technical challenges during the construction phase, according to Peyton. One of the most significant issues involved an area of poor soil that was not suitable for excavation by the TBM, which is designed for hard-rock conditions.

Originally, Peyton explained, the plan was to start excavation for the east (northbound) tunnel at 92nd Street. Once the TBM had been positioned, however, “garbage” soil was discovered in the area the TBM was to excavate first. (The poor soil had not been detected by core samplings, even though several were done in close proximity to the area of poor soil.)

Peyton said the MTA, the contractor and WSP “put our heads together” and devised a solution that involved moving the TBM to the west to begin boring the west (southbound) tunnel, where conditions were better. Meanwhile, “soil freezing” was used to stabilize the soil along the alignment of the east tunnel.

“Soil freezing involved drilling a series of holes from the surface to the tunnel invert, and then inserting closed pipes and manifolds through which was circulated very cold brine,” Peyton said. “The brine removed heat from the ground, which eventually froze solid. The tunnel was then excavated through the frozen ground. A concrete liner was installed, which allowed the freeze plant to be turned off, and the ground thawed while the remainder of the tunnel was excavated farther south.”

Once the TBM completed excavation of the west tunnel in February 2011, it was disassembled and moved back to 92nd Street, where it began digging the east tunnel through the newly stabilized ground, completing it in September 2011. The TBM advanced an average of 50 feet a day, which Peyton characterized as reasonably good performance.


A tunnel boring machine was used to dig most of the running tunnels along Second Avenue.

Managing Community Impacts

Stations excavated by traditional drill-and-blast caused considerable disruption to the local community, and those impacts, as well as many other inconveniences, had to be managed by the MTA and the WSP construction management team. Referring to local residents, Peyton said: “For a while, we [the construction team] weren’t their favorite people, but over time we worked through the problems.”

Peyton recalled that originally, the contractor was allowed to blast up until 10 p.m., but that generated considerable community opposition. In response, the MTA restricted blasting to the hours of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., scaled back other construction activities for the stations, and put in place other procedures to better control dust, noise and general inconvenience. Those measures, Peyton said, helped to improve community relations but also increased pressure on the schedule.

A community information center was opened near the 86th Street Station, and the MTA took more than 2,100 community residents, journalists and others on monthly tours of the work, most led by Dr. Michael Horodniceanu, president of the MTA Capital Construction Company (MTACC). The efforts to engage the community, particularly the tours, “changed the naysayers into yea sayers,” Peyton said. “It was quite amazing.”

Martin Hall, a construction manager who accompanied Dr. Horodniceanu on many of the tours of tunnel excavation, added: “It was fascinating to see the stunned look on the faces of the guests when they got to the bottom of the access shaft and the elevator door opened into a cavern over 900 feet long by 80 feet wide and 70 feet, right in the middle of Manhattan!”

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Martin Hall

Racing to the Finish

The project was nearing completion in late 2016, but it was almost certain it would not open for service in December as scheduled. Following a visit to the 86th Street Station several months ago, Gov. Cuomo resolved that the project would meet the scheduled opening date, and led a concerted effort by the MTA and the project team to have the line ready for revenue service on New Year’s Day 2017.

Charlie Hall led the WSP team charged with opening the line as scheduled, meeting regularly with the governor, MTA officials, and contractors. The weekly meetings led by the governor were not typical project update meetings, but working sessions that identified potential issues regarding coordination and performance by contractors, subcontractors and manufacturers.

At the time the governor became involved, the rail systems and platforms were largely complete, but there was no clear path to get passengers from the street to the mezzanines and onto the platforms. The WSP team therefore focused its efforts to ensure that contractors were completing the specific tasks necessary to have the line ready to accommodate passengers on Jan. 1.

Nonessential tasks in non-public areas were deferred until after the opening. Priorities were testing the fire-life-safety (FLS) systems, elevators and escalators, and completing the code requirements necessary for the stations to be certified to host passengers on Jan. 1. Completing the station entrances was also critical.

It was a tremendous amount of work to accomplish in a relatively short time, with each of the construction managers and their teams having particular challenges.

©2017 WSP USA

The opening of the Second Avenue Subway on Jan. 1, 2017 finally delivered the new subway line on Manhattan’s East Side that had been promised since the 1920s.

Stations Each Faced Issues

Martin Tagliaferro and his team at the 96th Street station had the challenge of completing entrances and coordinating with the systems contractor to complete FLS testing to have the station ready for an opening to the public on Dec. 23 hosted by the governor and other dignitaries. Appreciating the importance of first impressions, cleaning and addressing finish details continued until just hours before the opening. Tagliaferro and his team successfully directed the contractor and the key subcontractors to meet revenue service date requirements.

David Frank and his team at the 63rd Street station were faced with completing stairway/platform entrance finishes, completing FLS testing and having the new station entrance “white glove” clean. Working with MTACC, Frank’s team successfully coordinated the work between the station and systems contractor so that it was ready for an opening to the public on Jan. 1.

Amitabha Mukherjee and his team at the 72nd Street station faced perhaps the biggest challenge, as that station was considered the most unlikely to meet the Jan. 1 deadline. The mezzanine and entrance finishes were behind, systems testing had yet to start, remaining electrical work was significant, elevator/escalator testing was lagging and the code observation list was increasing.

Mukhurjee and his team, with the help of startup specialist Dave Fertal, focused their efforts on driving the contractor to complete the work using multiple shifts, parallel work paths and coordinated pre-requisite work between the station and systems contractor. The level of effort was enormous and not only was the station successfully opened, it was selected to host a gala opening party hosted by the governor on New Year’s Eve.

At the 86th Street station, the platforms and mezzanine were in good shape, but construction manager Martin Hall, resident engineer Harshad Pandit, and their team faced a challenge in completing the station entrance when it became clear in late December that a supplier would not be able to deliver the laminated tempered glass needed for the station’s canopy in time to open the station to the public on Jan. 1.

Hall and Pandit, working with MTACC, made a decision to use Lexan and stainless steel in place of permanent glass for the opening. Developing that work-around was key to ensuring the station opened on time and was only one of many instances where “we had to do things outside of the box,” according to Pandit.

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Although the 72nd Street station was considered the most unlikely to meet the Jan. 1 deadline, an enormous level of effort ensured that it opened on time … and was selected to host a New Year’s Eve gala.

Systems Testing and Inspections

George Colban and his team had the challenge of completing the systems installation and integrated testing across all four stations.

This included ensuring that the systems contractor completed and tested its own work, but also that the station contractors completed their installation and testing in the sequence and schedule, thus allowing the systems contractor to complete its integrated testing in support of revenue service. Colban and his team, working with the station construction managers and the systems contractor, drove the completion of all required pre-requisite work, resulting in successful communications and FLS testing.

Not only did all of the pre-opening work have to be completed in a compressed timeframe, it also had to pass muster with the governor, who made frequent unannounced visits to the site. Inspectors such as Marlon Belfor, Pablo Melara and Mahmoud Makkieh became very familiar with the governor’s visits while walking him through the worksites, showing him where the work was being performed and assuring him that the construction management team and contractors would meet the Dec. 31 completion date.

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The new subway stations are free of columns and include mezzanines between the street and the train platforms, making the stations much more spacious.

Wowing the Crowds on Opening Day

In the end, it all came together as planned on Jan. 1. The opening-day crowd marveled at the stations, which, unlike most New York City subway stations, are free of columns and include mezzanines between the street and the train platforms, making the stations much more spacious and pleasant.

Each of the stations includes artwork. The 86th Street station, for instance, features mosaic and ceramic-tile portraits by noted artist Chuck Close of celebrities such as Philip Glass, Lou Reed and Cindy Sherman.

Following the opening, many neighborhood residents approached the construction staff to offer their congratulations and thanks. Pandit recalled that when he started on the project in May 2011, there was a palpable sense of skepticism and negativity among neighborhood residents.

“Now when I walk the site wearing my hard hat and vest, people go out their way to thank me,” he said, adding that he is particularly gratified by the “positive accolades” he has received from elderly residents who have literally waited a lifetime for a subway along Second Avenue. One of the project’s most vociferous neighborhood critics even took a selfie with Pandit in the completed 86th Street station.

The Second Avenue Subway will be used by an estimated 213,000 passengers daily, and will reduce overcrowding on the Lexington Avenue line, two blocks to the west, by 13 percent, according to the MTA.

Following nearly a century of promises and nearly a decade of construction, New York City now has its Second Avenue Subway.

©2017 WSP USA

The 86th Street station a features artwork by New York artist Chuck Close, including a ceramic-tile portrait of musician Lou Reed.

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