Outside of the ceiling at the now-shuttered City Hall station which is actually a work of art, the ceilings of many New York City subway stations are works of art in the sarcastically metaphorical sense. With chipped paint peeling off the roofs and water stains cascading down from hidden orifices, the MTA’s ceilings do not inspire confidence in the system. If the authority can’t keep a fresh coat of paint on its stations, what exactly does that say about the way it maintains its system?
Now, over the years, I’ve tackled the MTA’s paint job problems. In 2007, the MTA had plans to paint 200 stations in five years, but that plan was delayed because the authority couldn’t figure out how to decide which stations would go first. By 2008, these plans had ballooned into some comical scheme in which the MTA would paint just 12 stations a year, and it would take 39 years to outfit all 468 stations with new paint. The delay, the authority said, came about because of lead abatement problems, but the whole thing seemed to be a microcosm for MTA mismanagement.
Flashfoward to today. We’re now a year into the MTA’s new component-based approach to subway repair, and the paint is still suffering. In his column yesterday, Daily News transit beat writer Pete Donohue tackled the saga of the ceilings. The MTA has a ceiling problem. He revisited the collapse in 2009 of the arched roof at 181st St. and notes that the ceilings at 168th St. have seen bits of plaster crumble onto the tracks.
He details the ways in which stations aren’t repaired and how the system is physically decaying today as trackbeds are replaced, repaired and better maintained than the physical stations:
A major collapse may not be likely at 168th St., but signs that it has been decaying for decades abound: missing wall tiles, crumbling concrete, nauseating stains caused by leaks dating back to the 10-cent token. Tin, cone-shaped public address speakers – attached to exposed metal pipes above the platform – seem like relics from a WWII bunker.
One ceiling leak is dealt with in a manner worthy of a Rube Goldberg award: A metal tray, suspended just below the ceiling, captures the water, which then flows down a pipe to another tray, then through another pipe that disappears into the ground near the rails.
The problem is one of priorities and funding. The MTA must first invest its capital money into its track and signal system to make sure its trains are running smoothly and on schedule. No one wants to revisit the 1970s when track fires were a daily occurrence, and trains ran without electricity. The number one priority is and must be the parts of the system involved in actual transportation.
But as the MTA invests heavily in its rolling stock and track, it doesn’t have the money or resources to devote to its stations. It can upgrade and rehab only a few stations every year, and those that miss the cut fall further and further into disrepair. The Chambers St. stop on the BMT Nassau St. line look as though it hasn’t gotten an upgrade since 1967 when the Chrystie Street work changed the station configuration, and it probably has indeed been that long. The renovated Times Square station might look better than it did, but even its paint work is showing the signs of age. West Fourth St. is a disaster unto itself.
As Donohue writes, the authority’s component-based repair system is the right way to tackle a seeming monstrous task. Something as simple as a cosmetic upgrade at a station — brighter lightbulbs, a repaired staircase, a cleaner floor, fresh paint — will make the system more welcoming and more pleasant for its riders. People won’t be disgusted by their stations and might think of transit as something better than a hassle every morning. “Start with the roof, fellas,” Donohue says to the MTA, and why not? After all, most system roofs certainly need it. Look up at your own risk.