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NY Underground (image map with 11 selections)

Beyond the IRT

Photo of August Belmont The success of the Interborough Rapid Transit System, more commonly referred to as the IRT, created an immediate demand for its expansion. While Manhattan's newest transit system was a gold mine for August Belmont and his IRT, it fell far short of meeting the needs of all commuters.

In 1905, just a year after the opening of the IRT, the Board of Rapid Transit Commissioners announced plans for an additional nineteen subway lines. New tracks would run one hundred and sixty-five miles through Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens; the board called for open bids for construction and operation.

Photo of early subway car
August Belmont saw in these plans a dual threat to the IRT's profitable monopoly. If another company built and operated the new lines, the IRT would not realize a profit from expansion. He also understood the law of supply and demand. The IRT made the most money when its trains ran at absolute, bone-crunching capacity. New subway lines would result in less crowded trains and a lower profit margin. With all this in mind, Belmont moved quickly to protect the IRT.

Private Ownership, Public Concerns
When the Metropolitan Street Railway stated its interest in bidding on the new lines, Belmont made it clear that since the IRT had been the city's first subway, it should be given sole right to construct any additional lines. The Transit Commission responded by offering Belmont a chunk of the expansion pie--but not all of it. Pressed into a corner, Belmont responded with the pluck of a Gilded Age capitalist and bought the company.

Photo of elevated train The Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRT) operated a profitable network of streetcars and elevated railroads in Brooklyn--a network that it now proposed be extended into Manhattan as part of subway expansion. Belmont lacked the resources to buy the BRT, so he negotiated for the strongest position possible--the BRT and the IRT would share in construction and operation of a greatly expanded system. The era of the Dual Contracts was born.

The Dual Contracts doubled the size of the current system, pushing Manhattan's population northward and fostering residential growth in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens. The new lines connected the beaches of Coney Island with the theaters of Times Square, and the citizens of Queens with the shopkeepers of Manhattan. But the terms of the contracts, particularly the fares and how they would be divided, would later cripple the system and threaten its continued growth.

At the time the Dual Contracts were negotiated, the IRT and the BRT consistently made money. Naturally, they desired to continue, and they succeeded in negotiating a payment system that included a guaranteed yearly profit, to be taken before any lease payments were made to the City of New York. In addition, the subway operators sought and received a guaranteed five cent fare for the length of their forty-nine-year lease on the system.

Photo of Subway Commuters circa 1915 Well before they completed the Dual Contracts lines, the IRT and the BRT felt severe growing pains. The nickel fare, which seemed like a sure bet to the subway magnates in 1911, lost its luster in the inflation-ridden days of World War I. By the time they claimed their guaranteed profits, the companies had little money left for maintenance and equipment upgrades.

Map of BMT lines The BRT, despite its reputation as the more modern and safer of the two systems, fell into receivership on December 31, 1918. In 1923, before completing its share of the Dual Contracts construction, it reorganized itself as the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT). If financial woes drove the BRT to the brink, the Malbone Street Wreck helped push it over.

The City's Subway System
New York Mayor John Hylan, a staunch advocate of municipal subway ownership, made life difficult for the private traction interests. Some believed he did so because he held a grudge. In 1897, while working his way through law school as a motorman on the BRT elevated railway, Hylan had been fired after nearly running down a supervisor with his train. While Hylan always maintained that his actions against the private subways were in the interest of his constituents, his bitterness clearly showed. His administration would all but cripple the subways--and would give rise to a new, municipally-owned system.

Hylan took a stand on the nickel fare, and absolutely opposed an increase, an action which won him a landslide reelection in 1921. He also halted the Dual Contracts construction of new BRT lines and of repair yards at Coney Island. While subway service faltered, Hylan pushed his new vision: an independent, city-operated subway.

Photo of street being dug up for 
subway construction
On March 14, 1925, after years of public bellicosity and private maneuver, John Hylan broke ground for the Independent Subway System, or IND. Built to the track and car specifications of the BMT so the two systems could be linked, the IND was wholly financed, owned, and operated by the city. Most of the IND routes would concentrate on already-populous areas.

The first section of the IND, the 80th Avenue subway from Washington Heights to Downtown Manhattan, opened on September 10, 1932. No great ceremony marked the occasion, as was fitting for a line that was destined for the same financial troubles as its predecessors. Again, the culprit was the nickel fare.

According to the charter of the IND, the line would, after three years, be required to charge a fare that met its operating expenses. As the deadline approached, new mayor James "Jimmy" Walker, realizing that having a city-owned system that charged more than its private counterparts would be bad politics, pushed to unify the three systems under municipal ownership.

Unification was achieved in 1940, under the administration of Fiorello LaGuardia, when the City of New York paid $326 million to purchase the BMT and the IRT. The price of freedom seemed high until one considered the alternative. The BMT and the IRT took their guaranteed profits year by year, but only the IRT returned any revenue to the city--a paltry $19 million over the entire term of the Dual Contracts. Meanwhile, the city had to make good on the Dual Contracts bonds, to the tune of $183 million. In 1932, the IRT slid into receivership. By the end of the thirties, service was again on the decline.

Driving Away the Commuters

Photo of a car
Operating under the Board of Transportation of the City of New York, the newly unified system experienced initial success, largely due to New York's position as a hub of enterprise during World War II. Ridership increased dramatically, and the nickel fare again became profitable. But when the war ended, so did the unified system's brief period of glory. Turned loose with money in their pockets from a postwar job boom, commuters abandoned subway transportation for a new love--the automobile.

In 1948, shrinking ridership forced a doubling of the nickel fare, but by then the dilapidated system seemed beyond saving. In 1953, a new independent agency, the New York City Transit Authority (TA) took over the system and raised the fare to 15 cents. Service continued to decline despite the fare increase. Meanwhile, sleek highways built by car-conscious planners like Robert Moses beckoned seductively.

Despite its troubles, the subway continued to grow. In 1953, the TA bought an 11-mile section of the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) for $8.3 million. After repairs, the line opened in 1956, extending subway service as far as the Rockaways. In 1955, a new tunnel from Manhattan to Queens connected the BMT and IND systems for the first time. The TA bought the rest of the LIRR in 1965, and enhanced the IND-BMT connection with a Manhattan tunnel in 1967.

Rebirth of Underground Movement

Photo of graffiti covered train In 1972, New York broke ground for a new Second Avenue subway. Construction began immediately, but ceased in 1975, a victim of New York's massive fiscal problems. A one-two combination of inflation and low ridership hit the subways hard, and service deteriorated to perhaps its lowest level ever. Accidents and breakdowns occurred with frustrating frequency, ridership fell, and graffiti-marred subway trains became a national symbol of New York's decline.

While some believed the subway should expand, the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) chose instead to improve the service on existing lines. In 1982, and again in 1987, the MTA launched a five-year capital improvement program, which applied $1.2 billion dollars per year for system wide upgrades, including new buses and subway cars, track and station maintenance, and efficient fare collection systems. By 1989, the graffiti had vanished. A 1992 initiative, the "Fare Deal," championed the system's efforts at better customer service. Steadily, people returned to the trains.

In 1994, ninety years after the $35 million IRT made its debut under the sidewalks of Manhattan, the MTA approved $17.2 billion for improvements to the existing system--and for an extension of the 63rd Street Tunnel. In the midst of a contemporary renaissance, the New York subway would continue to grow.

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