The 86th Street station is served by the Q train at all times, and some N trains during rush hours. It has two tracks and an island platform. The station is built so that it is more wide open than most other underground stations in the system; its architecture, along with two other Second Avenue Subway stations, was compared to a Washington Metro station by Dr. Michael Horodniceanu, President of MTA Capital Construction. The platform is 93 feet (28 m) below ground. The platform for the 86th Street station, like the other Second Avenue Subway stations, is 27.8 feet (8.5 m) wide.
The station has air-cooling systems to make it at least 10 °F (6 °C) cooler than other subway stations during the summer. This requires the station to have large ventilation and ancillary buildings, rather than traditional subway grates. The station is also compliant with current fire codes, whereas most existing stations are not. Additionally, the station is waterproofed with concrete liners and fully drained.
This station is one of two on the N with the name "86th Street"; the other station is in Gravesend, Brooklyn.
In 2009, MTA Arts & Design selected Chuck Close from a pool of 300 potential artists to create the artwork for the station. His work consists of a series of twelve portraits of the city's cultural figures, spread over 1,000 square feet (93 m2) of wall. Each 10-foot-high (3.0 m) piece is made with tiles that are painted to create a mosaic-like effect. The pieces cost $1 million and were installed near the exits and in the mezzanines.
Close's portraits at the station, titled "Subway Portraits," fall into two main categories. The first category of portraits comprises artists whom Close is familiar with. The station contains portraits of composer Philip Glass in his youth; musician Lou Reed; photographer Cindy Sherman; painter Cecily Brown; artist Kara Walker; and painter Alex Katz. The second category is composed of portraits of younger, more ethnically diverse artists including Zhang Huan, Sienna Shields and Pozsi B. Kolor. In these portraits, Close aimed to highlight the cultural diversity of New York City. He also has two self-portraits within the station.
There are 3 entrances and exits, which comprise 10 escalators and one elevator.
There are also two ancillary buildings that store station equipment:Ancillary 1, SW corner of Second Avenue and 83rd Street
Ancillary 2, NW corner of Second Avenue and 86th Street
Originally, Entrance 2's escalator entrance was to be located inside the Yorkshire Towers apartment building at 305 East 86th Street, on the northeast corner of Second Avenue and 86th Street. In 2009, a Finding Of No Significant Impact by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) found this to be unfeasible, so the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) revised the plan to two separate sidewalk entrances in front of the building. During the planning process, it was determined that building a new entrance within the Yorkshire Towers would be too expensive and logistically unfeasible. The apartments directly above the entrance's location would have had to be structurally underpinned during construction, and the Food Emporium supermarket location would have had to close to make way for the new entrance. Of the three alternatives presented for moving the entrance, the MTA chose an alternative in which there would be two new escalator entrances on the north side of 86th Street, both flanking the semicircular driveway of Yorkshire Towers and facing away from the driveway. There was also a proposal to move the sidewalk escalator entrances to the south side of the street, as well as another proposal to build a new structure containing five elevators at the southeast corner of Second Avenue and 86th Street, in a manner similar to Entrance 3 of the adjacent 72nd Street station.
Controversy emerged over Entrance 2's location in February 2011, when a lawsuit was filed by the Yorkshire Towers over the location of Entrance 2. The entrances, planned to service 3,600 people an hour, were alleged in the lawsuit to be destroying the quality of life for building tenants, if the entrances were to be built in the location. The lawsuit was later dismissed because the suit had been filed two years after the FTA's FONSI was published, which was past the statute of limitations. A new lawsuit was filed on March 15, 2013, after the MTA started construction on the entrances. In June 2013, that lawsuit was also dismissed.
The Second Avenue Line was originally proposed in 1919 as part of a massive expansion of what would become the Independent Subway System (IND). Work on the line never commenced, as the Great Depression crushed the economy. Numerous plans for the Second Avenue Subway appeared throughout the 20th century, but these were usually deferred due to lack of funds. In anticipation of the never-built new subway line, the Second and Third Avenue elevated lines were demolished in 1942 and 1955, respectively. The Second Avenue Elevated had one station at 86th Street and Second Avenue—right above the same intersection where the under-construction subway station is located—while the Third Avenue Elevated had two stops on nearby Third Avenue at 84th Street and 89th Street.
As part of the New York City Transit Authority's 1968 Program for Action, the construction of the full-length Second Avenue Subway was proposed. It was to be built in two phases—the first phase from 126th to 34th Streets, the second phase from 34th to Whitehall Streets. This was ultimately went unbuilt because of the New York City fiscal crisis of 1976.
In 1999, the Regional Plan Association considered a full-length Second Avenue Subway, which include 86th Street as one of its planned 31 stations. The main station entrance would be at 86th Street to the north, with additional exits between 86th and 82nd Streets to the south.
In March 2007, the Second Avenue Subway was revived. The line's first phase, the "first major expansion" to the New York City Subway in more than a half-century, included three stations in total (at 72nd, 86th, and 96th Streets), which collectively cost $4.45 to $4.5 billion. Its construction site was designated as being from 105th Street and Second Avenue to 63rd Street and Third Avenue. The MTA awarded a $337 million contract—one that included constructing the tunnels between 92nd and 63rd Streets, building a launch box for the tunnel boring machine (TBM) at 92nd to 95th Streets, and erecting access shafts at 69th and 72nd Streets—to Schiavone Construction, Skanska USA Civil, and J.F. Shea Construction. The line's construction commenced on April 15, 2007, though planning for the station was finalized in June 2007, when the station entrances' locations were confirmed.
On September 15, 2011, the contract for building the station was awarded to the joint venture of Skanska USA and Traylor Bros Inc. As of January 17, 2013, the cavern stretching from 83rd to 87th Streets was 57% excavated. By July 2013, construction of the station was 53% complete. The final blast for the 86th Street station was completed for an escalator cavern on November 22, 2013. Skanska/Traylor were still installing waterproofing and steel reinforcement, as well as putting concrete around the underground cavern, entrances, and ancillaries. As of May 2014, entrances 1 and 2 are being built, and excavation is 100% complete; as of December 2014, the station shell is complete, bringing the total Second Avenue Subway project progress to three-fourths completion.
The station was scheduled to be completed by May 16, 2016, but the estimated completion date was pushed back to October 2016. In October 2016, concerns arose that the station might not open on time because workers had only installed 10 of the station's 13 escalators. However, the 86th Street station passed all required systems testing by December 18, 2016. The station opened on January 1, 2017.
Since 2013, construction of the station has caused the value of real estate in the area to rise. However, construction has temporarily made the prices of real estate decrease to "affordable" levels. Although the surrounding area's real estate prices had been declining since the 1990s, there had been increases in the purchases and leases of residential units around the area, causing real estate prices to rise again. Some businesses near the station's construction site had also lost profits. With the opening of the new station, business owners hoped to see an increase in patronage.
The Second Avenue Subway Community Information Center, which gives information about Phase I construction to community members, is located nearby, at 1628 Second Avenue between 84th and 85th Streets. It opened on July 25, 2013. On May 23, 2014, a new exhibit about the construction techniques used to build the Second Avenue Subway, titled "En Route: The Techniques and Technologies Used to Build the Second Avenue Subway", was launched at the center. In addition, a train simulator allows visitors to simulate the operation of a Second Avenue Subway train. Throughout the process of construction, the MTA also gave intermittent tours of the construction site to Upper East Side residents with reservations.