Lost in the most recent round of the 80-year-old argument over Manhattan’s always-under-construction Second Avenue subway line is a disarming thought: We’ve gotten to a point where we’re not longer able to engage in the kind of construction projects that were possible a century ago. The cost of a mile of subway in New York City is a billion dollars. Even if city and state coffers were full, this would be a tremendous strain on resources, and these days – well, forget about it. The reasons for this have to do first and foremost with better labor rights (obviously a good thing), but also with the rising cost of materials due to greater worldwide demand as developing economies like China and India down galvanized steel like hotcakes.
In general, I think it’s hard for Americans to conceptualize a comprehensive transit system that doesn’t have a heavy rail network at its center. As a result, talking about building public transit from scratch in cities that have no history of concerted urban planning turns into a sort of pie-in-the-sky discussion. This is a shame, because there are ways to build excellent transit systems from the ground up, literally: by using only above-ground vehicles and in particular, the humble streetcar.
For these reasons and others, we’ve seen in recent years a tremendous renewal of interest among American cities in historic, long-abandoned streetcar systems as well as in the creation of new networks. Cities as different and distant as Cincinnati, Fort Worth, Lexington, and Washington, D.C. are all currently in the planning stages of creating new lines, and all are looking to the successful Portland and Seattle streetcars as examples.
But there’s another city I know whose wide, straight streets would be just perfect for installing tracks and platforms entirely segregated from traffic on raised mediums. A city whose elderly and disabled residents would appreciate not having to negotiate stairs and escalators, not to mention a smoother ride than a bus could ever offer. A city whose transit system is bursting at the seams and needs to find a way to expand in the face of huge budget shortfalls. That city, of course, is New York.
With city congestion growing as revenues slow, ditching the Second Avenue line now before we get too invested would be the smartest thing we could do. Instead of $1 billion per mile, new streetcar lines cost around $35-45 million – about 4% of the price. The mind boggles at the possibilities.