A New Subway Line for New York City, The Triborough System: Its History (1910)

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Engineering News · Vol. 63, No. 10. March 10, 1910

As noted in our last issue. New York City will soon begin the construction of an extensive new rapid-transit subway system. This much-needed forward step must be credited to the following two causes: First, the new city administration which came into office at the beginning of the current year is actively interested in bettering transit facilities, whereas during the preceding administration little or nothing was done and at times even obstructive tactics were used. Second, the courts decided, a few months ago, that the city has still a sufficient margin of borrowing power for a large expenditure on new subways. The city officials believe that, with economical management of city affairs, they can afford to appropriate 20 to 25 millions of dollars per year for five or six years to come, the period required for completing the work.


The route of the new subway was described in our last issue, and is shown on the map herewith. It comprises a main trunk north and south through Manhattan Borough on Lexington Avenue and Irving Place from the Harlem River to Tenth St. and on Broadway, Vesey and Church Sts. from Tenth St. to the Battery; two branches in Bronx Borough, one northeast via 138th St. Southern Boulevard and Westchester Ave. to Pelham Bay Park. the other northerly via River Ave. and Jerome Ave.. to Woodlawn Road, connecting with the Manhattan trunk by a tunnel under the Harlem River; a Manhattan-Brooklyn line extending from the North River via Canal Street across the East River on the Manhattan Bridge to connect with the Fourth Avenue subway in Brooklyn now being built, which thus becomes an integral part of the larger system; two branches southerly from the Fourth Ave. line extending south to Fort Hamilton and southeast to Coney Island; and a loop feeder line in Brooklyn through Lafayette Ave. and Broadway, connecting with the Fourth Ave. line at one end. and at the other crossing the Williamsburg Bridge and entering the Centre Street Loop subway in Manhattan which is thus also incorporated in the system.

Preceding Subways in New York

This is the first important subway enterprise undertaken by New York City since the first (Elm Street) subway was begun, a little over ten years ago. The Brooklyn Extension of the Elm St. subway via the Battery Tunnels was really a part of the original plan, merely delayed a few years for convenience. On the other hand the two short sections of subway since built, the Centre Street loop and the Fourth Avenue (Brooklyn) subway, were undertaken because they would be central strategic elements of future subway systems and would give the city a great tactical advantage in any future contingency of legislation of financing where the city might come into opposition to private franchise-seeking interests.

The history of the new project is quite involved. While much briefer and less complex than the history of the first subway line (detailed in our issues of Jan. 30 and Feb. 6. 1902), it is sufficiently interesting to be worth recording here, and it exhibits strikingly the vicissitudes and delays that may beset important municipal undertakings.

History of the Triborough Line - Planning A Subway Network

The Rapid Transit Commission, after completing the Elm Street subway in 1904, began work in 1905 and 1906 on the task of laying out many new subway routes, enough for the needs of 30 or 50 years to come. Taking a map of the city, they drew in a subway route on nearly every available street in Manhattan, and the main thoroughfares of Bronx and Brooklyn boroughs. Most of these lines were well chosen. In our issue of Dec. 27, 1906, p. 681, will be found a map showing about half of the projected routes.

At that time the public had become enthusiastic over the success of the Elm Street subway, and clamored for further subway construction. The Elm Street subway before its construction had found little favor with capitalists, and bidders for building and operating it had been vary scarce. In 1905, the state of affairs was different, and several offers to bid on new routes were made. There were good prospects for early construction, and the Board of Estimate therefore selected seven of the projected routes as ones to be taken up first.

Lexington Ave. Line

The most popular lines among the new projects were two: the Broadway-Lexington Avenue route in Manhattan extending north to south via Lexington Ave., 42d St. and Broadway; and the Fourth Avenue route in Brooklyn, composed of several of the sections of routes laid out by the Commission, which would extend from Manhattan by way of one of the East River bridges into Brooklyn. with possible extension to Coney Island and possible later connection by tunnel under the Narrows to Staten Island.

No Bids

Prompt action was taken to forward the larger one of these two projects, namely, the Lexington Avenue route. By the end of 1906 the plans for this route were ready for bids. But in April, 1907, when bids were to be opened, no bids had been received.

This surprising result was due in part to unfavorable legislation and in part to financial intrigues.

(1) The State law under which the original subway contract had been let was changed while the new projects were under consideration; more rigid provisions to protect the public were established; franchises for operations were limited to 20 years, etc. The result was that the eagerness of capital to seek profitable subway operating leases was at once diminished nearly to the zero point. This would have been of minor importance except for fact that the city's remaining borrowing capacity (within the legal limit of 10% of assessed valuation) was very low. Years of riotous living by the city government had pushed up the bonded indebtedness to a point where the city would have to look to private capital for the large sums needed to build a new subway. At this time the law was again changed, and while less restrictive, other obstacles had intervened to hold up subway construction.

(2) While for a short time there was rivalry between different sets of capitalists to gain control of new subway routes, this was killed consolidation of interests. The Interborough Rapid Transit Co., which had the operating franchise of the subway and also leased the Manhattan elevated railways, was opposed by surface-railway interests. The capitalists controlled the Metropolitan Street Railway combine, and the latter publicly offered to build a subway route as soon as a route should be up for bidding. But before this event could occur, the rival interests combined in the formation of the Interborough-Metropolitan merger, and threatened competition was put to sleep.

Combined with the latter factor was the opposition of the Interborough company to the route selected by the Rapid Transit Commission. The company wanted to extend the subway system by building such east-side and west-side sections as would, with the Elm St. subway, enable it to establish two complete and independent lines, one on each side of Manhattan. The company was the more firm in this attitude because of the new law, which rendered the enterprise less attractive as an investment. The result was that the company refused to bid.

The Lexington Ave. route remained dead from that time until recent months.

Contracts for Fourth Ave. Line

For a time the city authorities held to the belief that the city could not spare the money to build any useful part of the network of subway routes projected. Later, however, they concluded that something must be done and therefore authorized a call for bids on a short section, namely, part of the Fourth Avenue line lying in Brooklyn extending southerly from the Manhattan Bridge about two miles. The Rapid Transit Commission definitely resolved to call for bids for construction of this section only a few weeks before the Commission was put out of office and superseded by the newly established Public Service Commission (July, 1907). Bids for building this section known as the Fourth Avenue subway, were again delayed by various incidents for ten months longer. Finally in May, 1908, the Public Service Commission received bids on detailed plans worked out by the Commission engineers, and awarded contracts. The idea at this time was to take up more extensive subway work, probably the Lexington Ave. route first of all, as soon as the Fourth Avenue work was started.

Dissensions Among City Authorities

A characteristic of the state of affairs during the next two years was a marked lack of harmony between the Board of Estimate the new Public Service Commission. This was evidenced in disagreements and disputes, at other times merely in inactivity. The condition is responsible in large part for the fact that the Fourth Avenue subway was delayed for two years and further work for nearly three.

The Debt Limit Dispute

The Fourth Avenue subway having already been delayed by various trifles from July, 1907, to May 1908, was held up 18 months longer by a curious dispute originating among the city officials. This city's margin of bonding was conceded to be in excess of 15 or 16 million dollars, the approximate cost of the Fourth Avenue line, but one proclaimed that this margin would be consumed by more direct needs than subway work. There being a legal doubt as to what bonds of the city should be included in the debt computation, the matter was taken to court and first of all an injunction against the Board of Estimate was asked for and obtained, prohibiting it from sanctioning the contracts until decision should be rendered. The litigation lasted until October 1909, and no subway work was done in the meantime.

A favorable decision on the debt limit question left the city free to go ahead with the Fourth Avenue work. Just before the 1909 election, which brought a new party into power the Board of Estimate approved the contracts awarded nearly two years before. The bidders took up the contracts in spite of the lapse of time, and by December, 1909, work was started along the whole length of the Fourth Avenue section.

The judicial investigation had shown, moreover, that the city had a bond-issue margin which would suffice for much more subway work than merely that on Fourth Avenue. During the five years since the first subway was opened to traffic, the inadequacy of the latter to handle the growing transit needs was evident more and more strongly, since the conditions of crowding in the subway have for two years past surpassed the notorious crowding which prevailed at the Brooklyn Bridge terminal before the Battery Tunnel was opened. For these reasons it was clear, immediately after the court decision, that the construction of a new north-south subway in Manhattan should be undertaken at once.

Last Legal Delay Removed

Even prior to this it would have been possible to proceed with the Lexington Ave. or another route, by enlisting private capital: the State legislature in 1908 changed the restrictive law which limited the life of future subway operating contracts, and established new provisions under which bidders would be sure of a safe investment. Early in 1909, then, the Lexington Ave. route could have been opened for bids, had it not been for a piece of early negligence in obtaining property-owners' consents. The original plan for the route showed a single-level subway, and apparently the original consents were obtained on this basis. Late in 1906 the plans were changed to make the subway double-deck for part of its length in Manhattan, Lexington Ave. and Broadway being narrow, and the surface grade of Lexington Ave. being so undulating that adherence to a surface grade (as necessary for the "local" tracks) would have been seriously hampering to operation on the "express" tracks. This change of design required a new reference to the courts to validate it, but such was not made until the middle of 1909. It appears that even the unsuccessful 1907 call for bids was made under the mistaken apprehension that the original validation held for double-deck construction.

The final decision of the courts validating the double-deck subway was rendered about a month ago, leaving the city authorities free to proceed. The debt-limit decision having been handed down only a few months before, all external obstacles to municipal construction are removed.

Municipal Harmony

The new city administration which came into office with the current year has recognized the imperative need for transit improvements, and has worked in harmony with the Public Service Commission in forwarding plans for new subway work. The outcome of their deliberations was the conclusion that construction contracts could be so drawn as to bind the city only for one year's expenditure at a time, which expedient will avoid burdening the city at the start with the full cost of the line. They decided also that both construction and combined construction and operation bids should be called for.

Between 1907 and 1910 the Public Service Commission had made close study of the routes projected in 1905 and 1906. These routes were more than simply lines on a map. A necessary legal preliminary to calling for bids is obtaining the consents of a majority of the owners of abutting property; or, if such cannot be obtained, obtaining a certificate of authorization from the Appellate Court. Such validation had been solicited and obtained by the Rapid Transit Commission for most of the route it laid out, and the Public Service Commission therefore was free to take them up whenever it desired, provided only the Board of Estimate appropriated the money for construction.

The Indiscriminate Franchise Law

The restrictive law regarding contracts for construction end operation was not changed until 1909. The most interesting provision of the new law is that which allows indiscriminate franchises. Under such a franchise the operating company either equips or both builds and equips the line with its own money, and then remains in control of operation until its net earnings have repaid its entire investment with interest and suitable dividend, after which the property and the operating rights revert to the City; except that the city is privileged to buy the property and franchise at any time after ten years from completion. This law makes a subway enterprise a safe investment for the contractor, provided only it will have enough traffic to earn a dividend.

The central routes in New York City under present conditions are all of them capable of securing sufficient traffic. Outlying lines would be more precarious enterprises, at least for some years, or until they could develop their neighboring districts sufficiently to yield a paying traffic.

In the case of a through line such as the one now projected, the central portions are certain to obtain traffic enough to pay their cost, while the outlying parts are less attractive. For the development of the city it is necessary, however, that lines be built into districts which do not at first promise a heavy traffic, and on this account municipal construction is preferable or even necessary on certain routes.

Assessment on Property

A further provision of the new law is specially adapted to this condition. Where a line is unattractive to private capital and not important enough for the city at large to undertake, it may yet be so valuable to the outlying districts which it serves as to make the property-owners there willing to pay for part of the cost. The latter is permitted by the new law. On application of enough interested property owners, the line may be built and part of its cost assessed on the property benefited.

This provision has not yet been actually used. and it is not intended to use It in building the lines now proposed. But if the Brooklyn Loop line Is extended eastward, as is demanded by East Brooklyn residents, the extension would probably be built under the assessment-aid provision.

Planning a Triborough System

Under these conditions the Commission has selected and recombined, from the routes laid out in 1905-06, such routes and parts of routes as seemed best adapted to furnish a comprehensive rapid-transit system reaching the maximum transit needs at most economical outlay. Some eight or nine of the validated routes were utilized, in whole or part, to make up the Triborough line now recommended.

Many detail modifications from the original alignment have been made, some to suit the general purpose of planning an efficient system, some because of objections on the part of private interests. Thus, the original course of the Broadway-Lexington Ave. line (as shown on our map Dec. 27,1908) was changed to turn from Broadway at Tenth Street into Lexington Ave. via private property and Irving Place, partly to avoid an unnecessary detour to the west, but also because of strong objection by property owners on Broadway. On the new alignment, however, it passed under or close to part of Grace Church, and complaint was promptly made that this edifice would be endangered. A further slight modification of alignment was necessary to meet this objection. Validation of these changes, obtained from the courts in January, 1909, completed the validation of the entire route except for the matter of double-deck subway construction on the major part of the Manhattan line as already noted.

Centre St. Loop Subway

In the above sketch of subway matters in New York City since 1904, no mention has been made of the Centre Street Loop subway, extending from the City Hall at the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge, north through Center and Delancey Streets to a connection with the Williamsburg Bridge. This was planned by the Rapid Transit Commission in 1905 as part of a loop over the Williamsburg and Brooklyn Bridges, with an extension running out Broadway (Brooklyn) and another in Lafayette Ave. (Brooklyn). The Manhattan main trunk of this loop was the only part put under contract, about the middle of 1907.

This section by itself had no promise as a successful rapid transit line, and though it is now substantially completed there is no prospect of putting it to use for some time to come. The Brooklyn Rapid Transit Co., operating surface and elevated lines in Brooklyn and crossing the Williamsburg Bridge, was the only company that could establish a useful traffic through the Centre St. Loop as built. But this company has declined to undertake running its Williamsburg Bridge lines into the loop subway. The present conditions will be unchanged until the Brooklyn part of the present Triborough project gives an effective transit line through the Loop, via the Lafayette Ave. and Broadway line in Brooklyn.

Private or Public Capital

The city administration having decided that it can spare the capital to construct the entire line, it will invite bids for construction on public money for all parts of the Triborough system. If these bids are accepted, separate contracts for operation would be entered into. However, as the system is one which promises profitable operation with a high degree of certainty, there is a strong probability that private capital will offer to undertake construction in order to secure the operating contract. Therefore bids on combined construction, equipment, and operation will also be invited.

In this connection the division of the system into three separate parts-the Bronx-Manhattan line, the Canal St. and Fourth Ave. line to Fort Hamilton and Coney Island, and the Brooklyn Loop line including the Centre St. Loop subway-is very important. The three parts are essentially independent traffic routes, and may be so operated. But they can also be connected at their intersections by track connections, enabling through routing of trains, thus probably requiring that the whole operation be in the hands of one company. In order that the city may obtain the best advantage, it should permit operating bids to be submitted on each of the three sections separately, and also on combinations of the three sections. The present understanding is that this will be done, and that in the event of one bidder securing the contract for operating the whole system, track connection of the three sections will be specified.

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