OCEAN CITY -- Just weeks ago, New York City commuters were packed in 46 stainless steel subway cars like sardines.
This week, the rail cars will begin housing real fish as part of a project to restore an offshore site favored by anglers but ravaged by time and the elements.
Weather permitting, a barge is expected to move into position 19 miles off Ocean City at the "Jackspot" and offload the cars into 85 feet of water. Within days, biologists say, sea bass, tautog and smaller fish that serve as a food source will begin to fill the insides.
"It ought to create a real melting pot of fish diversity," said Marty Gary, a biologist with the Department of Natural Resources.
The deployment is the initial down payment on what the Ocean City Reef Foundation hopes will be a three-year effort to salt the sea bottom with a total of 630 cars, all from New York.
"These cars have been proven to provide good habitat. Maybe once we get the food chain started again, we can bring back the tuna," said Greg Hall, foundation president.
Over the years, the group has deep-sixed lots of material to act as artificial reefs: trans-Atlantic telecommunications cable, barges, Coast Guard boats, even retired Army tanks. But the subway cars are "the most significant offshore reefing project in Maryland's history," Gary said.
The state's artificial-reef program has ebbed and flowed like the tide. Once an ambitious venture that created sites in both the Chesapeake Bay and offshore, it fell on hard financial times and was abandoned in 1997.
Ocean City anglers, divers and conservationists filled the void that year with the nonprofit reef foundation. Within the past two years, a similar group called the Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative (MARI) began raising money and building reefs in the Chesapeake.
This is the second attempt for a subway reef off Ocean City. Maryland was in line to kick off the subway-reef project in 2001, when environmentalists raised concerns about hazardous materials that gave Ocean City officials cold feet.
"At the time, we erred on the side of safety," Hall said. "We were worried about lawsuits if something went wrong. We didn't want to be first. We didn't want to make a mistake."
New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other regulatory groups developed a checklist for cleaning the cars. As a result, workers spend 135 hours on each car, removing lubricants, fiberglass and objects that could float away.
In the meantime, Delaware took Maryland's place in line. Then, New Jersey and Virginia asked for cars.
By the time Ocean City received its permits and raised money to cover the $25,000 delivery charge for one bargeload, states farther south and New York got in line, too.
"It's a good problem to have," said Michael Zacchea, assistant chief operations officer for New York's MTA. "All 1,600 cars are spoken for. From the get-go, we had a home for all the cars."
Maryland is now part of a rotation of six states.
A single contributor wrote a check to cover the first barge. The foundation has the cash toward a second one, and MARI is paying for delivery of a third barge.
The cars, built in the mid-to-late 1960s, weigh 18 tons each and are 60 feet long. Their stainless-steel exteriors hold up well underwater, allowing a thick coral crust to develop for habitat.
"After 40 years transporting the people of New York, they have another 40- to 50-year life as habitat for fish," said Zacchea, who is in charge of disposing of subway surplus. "In my view, this is the highest form of recycling we can perform."