Subway ridership short of forecasts

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Daily riders on the Second Avenue line are roughly 25 percent shy of predicted numbers


  • Ridership on the new Second Avenue line has climbed every week since its New Year's Day opening, but is still shy of projections. Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin

  • Ridership on the new Second Avenue subway has fallen short of projections. Photo: Madeleine Thompson

The MTA dubbed the Second Avenue subway an “immediate success” in a Feb. 1 press release announcing initial ridership figures, but Our Town analysis of publicly available data shows that the number of passengers using the new line has yet to meet projected ridership numbers long touted by the agency as justification for the $4.5 billion project.

For years, MTA officials forecast an average weekday ridership of 200,000 passengers upon completion of Phase One of the Second Avenue subway, which opened Jan. 1 and includes new stations at 72nd, 86th, and 96th Streets on Second Avenue and a new Q train stop at 63rd Street-Lexington Avenue. As recently as December, outgoing MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast said at an agency board meeting, “On day one, we will see it serve more than 200,000 people on that line.”

The week of Jan. 30 was the line’s busiest yet, but daily use hovered close to 150,000 riders per day, according to MTA turnstile data, which is published online weekly. Though ridership has grown in each successive week since New Year’s Day, the number of riders using the Phase One new stations has not approached the 200,000 rider estimate on any day.

Our Town’s analysis is based on data released weekly by the MTA showing the number of customers entering and exiting turnstiles in each subway station. The turnstile data does not account for passengers exiting stations via emergency gates or for passengers transferring to the Q train from the F train at 63rd Street-Lexington Avenue, but provides an approximate picture of ridership numbers.

The MTA’s announcement gave an official Second Avenue ridership count for just one day — 155,000 on Friday, Jan. 27 — and made no mention of the 200,000 riders per day estimate, which dates to a 2004 MTA environmental study and has been frequently cited in press reports and official statements. The agency explained in the press release that ridership tallies for the line are based on entries and exits from the four Phase One stations, as well as customers transferring from the F train to the Q train at 63rd Street.

Larry Penner, a transportation historian and advocate who worked for 31 years in the Federal Transit Administration’s N.Y. office, said that meeting ridership projections will be important as the MTA seeks to secure federal funding for the continuation of the Second Avenue project, which is planned to eventually span from 125th Street to Hanover Square in the Financial District. “The federal government is going to look at Phase One: did the ridership meet the estimates?” he said. “It’s in the MTA’s interest to prove to Uncle Sam that the full benefit is met that was promised in the initial document.”

U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, whose Congressional district includes much of Manhattan’s East Side, announced Jan. 26 that Phases Two and Three of the Second Avenue subway will be included in President Donald Trump’s list of priority infrastructure projects. On Feb. 4, Maloney told Our Town that the Second Avenue subway is “the newest, biggest and best subway in the country right now.”

In Washington, the subway expansion will compete to secure federal funding with dozens of other projects across the country. Before it can receive federal funding, the MTA will need to complete several steps, such as finishing a lengthy environmental review process and demonstrating local financial commitment to the project, possibly by including it in the 2020-2024 MTA Capital Plan.

Phase Two would extend the Second Avenue line north to 125th Street and is projected to serve an additional 100,000 weekday riders on average, according to the 2004 environmental study. Phase Three would extend service south to Houston Street, serving a projected 150,000 additional weekday riders. Phase Four would extend the line to Hanover Square, completing the project.

While ridership numbers on the Second Avenue line may be underperforming expectations, the project appears to be fulfilling one of its other goals — reducing overcrowding on the nearby Lexington Avenue line. According to the MTA, weekday ridership in four Upper East Side stations on the Lexington Avenue line decreased by an average of 27 percent from last year, as East Side riders adjusted their commutes with the opening of the new line.

Penner said that early returns on Second Avenue ridership are “not too bad, but it could be better,” adding that it would take more time before a clear picture emerges. As weather improves, he said, “I would think it’s only going to grow.”

“Historically the ridership estimates are usually a little bit more rosy or optimistic than the numbers end up being, but sometimes they beat the estimates,” he said.

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