Home New York City Transit CBC: MTA’s ‘State of Good Repair’ remains forever elusive

CBC: MTA’s ‘State of Good Repair’ remains forever elusive

by Benjamin Kabak

Over the past few/10/20/30/50 years, the New York City Transit Authority has engaged in an elusive game of repair. In transit-speak, the agency wants to achieve a state of good repair for its systems and stations, and although trains now run much more reliably than they did in the late 1970s and 1980s thanks to aggressive track replacement and signal work, our subway system’s stations are by and large in bad shape. As many have pointed out, attempting to achieve a state of good repair for a system with nearly 800 miles of track and a soon-to-be 469 stations is a Sisyphean task.

That Greek mythological figure is exactly how the city’s Citizens Budget Commission described the MTA’s effort in its latest report on the elusive State of Good Repair. Released last week, the report [pdf] essentially states what we all knew: The MTA is very unlikely to ever attain a State of Good Repair. Although that’s the headline, though, that’s not quite the main attraction. The MTA is never going to achieve a state of good repair because time keeps moving forward. A state rehabbed 20 years ago will need another overhaul in 15 years, and that’s just the unavoidable truth of a 35-year lifespan. The inefficiencies in the MTA’s progress though are dragging down the system.

More recently, the MTA has admitted that achieving a State of Good Repair is essentially impossible and has shifted to a component-based approach to station maintenance. This way, key elements such as staircases or platform lighting are repaired while other elements that may not affect the customer environment are left to the winds of time. This too has its problems as the CBC report details.

But enough of generalities. Let’s talk about the report. The CBC analyzed the MTA’s component-based approach and found that nearly a quarter of the MTA’s components are serious deficient, and 33 stations — including some high-profile, high-traffic ones — have less than half of their components in an acceptable state of repair. These include 7th Ave. on the Brighton Line and Grand Army Plaza (shown above), two of my local stations, and 16 in Queens, most serving the 7, N/Q or J trains.

With this in mind, the CBC asked if the MTA is allocating enough funding to its State of Good Repair efforts and what else the agency could be doing to speed up State of Good Repair efforts. I found their answers both frustrating and insufficient. For the first question, the CBC questioned the MTA’s prioritizing spending on expansion efforts such as East Side Access or Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway over repair works. To me, this misses the forest for the trees. If New York is to grow and remain competitive globally, it absolutely has to expand its high-speed, high-capacity transit network, and the only way to do that is through subway expansion. We can and have talked about the problem with these capital projects’ costs, but New York City can’t afford a future without an expanding subway network.

On the second issue, the CBC took a look at station repair costs, and it wasn’t pretty. Of the 42 station renovation efforts under the last five-year capital plan, 28 were over budget, and 10 saw their costs double. That’s setting aside the fact that the MTA accomplishes only 8 of these per year. Costs have increased at a rate that outpaces inflation, and the CBC, in so many words, notes that ADA-compliance often costs more than the benefits it delivers.

To achieve cost savings, the CBC urges the MTA to “make effective use” of public-private partnerships — which has proven easier said than done time after time. One of the CBC ideas — subway station conservancies modeled on the Department of Parks’ example. The CBC notes that “appropriate governance” would be required to avoid “inequities among neighborhoods,” but that has not exactly worked out well for the city’s parks. An adopt-a-station program would need aggressive oversight and some sort of redistribution scheme to ensure that those stations in Queens get the same investment as the ones in Midtown.

In a way, the CBC report though ignores what I mentioned earlier: The MTA cannot maintain and achieve a State of Good Repair, and the agency recognizes this. With 468 stations, the work is never-ending, and the MTA has to figure out a way to ensure that funding is sustainable and sufficient for a never-ending renovation scheme that considers a 35- or 40-year useful life. That is, if a station is renovated now, it will have to be re-done in 2050, and stations that were overhauled in 1995 are up for renovation again in 2030.

Meanwhile, the report has led to some interesting examinations of MTA funding schemes. Christopher Bonanos at New York Magazine asked if real estate developers should fund MTA repairs. Playing off of the One Vanderbilt investment in the Grand Central station, he urges real estate developers to pony up money for subway improvements and throws in the carrot of zoning variances or subway-level real estate:

Every giant glass tower that goes up in midtown adds a few hundred occupants (at least) to the grid. Each building increases the load on city services: water, sewer, electrical, transit. Setting aside the big transfer points like Times Square, a local midtown subway stop serves about 20,000 or so riders on a weekday. Add ten new apartment buildings in the neighborhood, and that number of users will go up by a significant percentage. If those buildings’ developers are relying on city systems, they should pay for their improvement. Every giant new tower, or group of towers, should be matched with a renovated station down the block…The MTA could even sweeten the deal by throwing in a lease on some of its own wasted real estate. Some of the giant mezzanine spaces of the A-C-E stations, for example, could easily garage a few shops. Chipotle and Starbucks probably wouldn’t want to be in the grimy stations that exist now — but in fresh, bright renovated ones? Why not? In exchange for building out the stores, the developer would get a share of the rental revenue for, say, a decade.

On the other hand, Rebecca Baird-Remba at New York Yimby cast a skeptical eye at P3s as a be-all and end-all solution for transit funding woes. She feels that New York State requires formal legislation overseeing P3s before the MTA could rely on them for serious transit funding, but ultimately, these one-offs are alluring.

All in all, it’s a tough balance. The MTA isn’t going to achieve a state of good repair, but station repairs should move faster than they do. Again, though, without a serious conversation on cost control and an aggressive cost-cutting initiative by the MTA, we will be paying more for less as the years go by. Even Sisyphus didn’t have it that bad.

For a map showing how your local station stacks up against the system’s worst, check out this interactive overview from the CBC.

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Anonymous September 10, 2015 - 4:28 am

Adopt-a-station isn’t too bad, even if the only adopted stations were in Manhattan (and a couple of Brooklyn/Queens ones, think Atlantic/Barclays).

It frees up funding to focus on stations that haven’t been adopted, so it’s never a bad thing.

Stephen September 10, 2015 - 10:32 pm

I have no problem with the adopt-a-station model so long as it follows the highway system concept as in there is NO NAME CHANGE TO THE STATION. I despise naming rights with all my heart and I can’t stand seeing that name you mentioned whenever I see it in a sports story or advertisement for something.
Just like the highway system, the adopter gets one, yes, one plaque saying they are have adopted the station for purposes of renovation and cleaning.

Brooklynite September 10, 2015 - 11:02 pm

Corporations wouldn’t really want to put up with MTA for the glory of one plaque. If they got guaranteed control of 75% of the advertising space in the station, they would probably be much more eager to sign up.

Ryan September 11, 2015 - 9:55 am

100% control over the advertising space seems fair for an adopt-a-station program.

One plaque isn’t really worth the material it’s printed on, and naming rights (with the exception of naming rights going to a landmark building intimately connected to the station such as the Barclay’s Center or Madison Square Garden and NOWHERE ELSE) are a scourge upon transit. “South Ferry Station, presented by CapitalOne” is the closest thing I’d be okay with. “CapitalOne Station” is entirely unacceptable.

Having the Mets stop be named Mets or Citi Field is appropriate since it is in fact the stop you get off at if you’re going to see a Mets game. Allowing Citi to purchase the naming rights to any stop other than that one is unacceptable.

Stephen September 13, 2015 - 8:53 am

Control over the ad space is one thing, but do we want our stations to look like the train cars when they get wrapped for something ‘special’ – I’m thinking tv shows and other things I’ve seen. We see enough advertising as it is these days and to be bombarded with walls of ads is not the way to get me to spend my money on your product.
I have no problems with the advertising billboards we have now in the stations. We don’t need the turnstiles (as in some places) turned into advertising wheels and columns.
The bottom line for me is that I don’t want in-our-face ad placements.
As for naming rights, I am happy the bank didn’t buy the name for the joint in queens, as I ride the #7 train.
Naming rights to me make it seem like I am being influenced by the deal when I buy the product. I don’t like to be thought of as being manipulated. Also, to all you marketing folks out there (I’m not one, I’m a computer guy), please tell me how companies measure the ROI of these deals? Granted, $20,000,000 per year for the bank in queens might be a rounding error to them, but still it’s 20 mil and it is cold hard cash. Do they think they get good returns on it? How many people come into a branch and say, yeah, I saw your bank’s name on that place in queens and decided to come in to open a bank? At the end of the day, isn’t that what they want? Companies and folks to open accounts? Same goes for their take-over of the naming rights for the bike program. As a long-time cyclist, I’d never give them the money for that, no matter how great the program might be (of course, with no places where I live in Queens, it’s easy to do do that now).
/end of rant, thanks for listening.

Larry Greenfield September 10, 2015 - 8:06 am

Your statement that, “…although trains now run much more reliably than they did in the late 1970s and 1980s thanks to aggressive track replacement and signal work, our subway system’s stations are by and large in bad shape.” leaves out a major contribution to the improvement in reliability, namely the car replacement, overhaul and scheduled maintenance programs instituted under the Kiley-Gunn administration.

paulb September 10, 2015 - 8:53 am

Not the most encouraging of posts. I figured it was SAS and ESA why station renovation halted (also thinking of Seventh Ave, but West Fourth in Village, too). What we could have done with just a fraction of the $trillion-plus pounded into the sand in the ME.

tacony September 10, 2015 - 9:46 am

The MTA has serious problems gettings its “private partners” to uphold their end of the deal in just about everything they do. How many years of fighting between the MTA and the Zeckendorf Towers about the Union Square escalators being permanently broken? And weren’t they built as part of the “public benefit” to rezone the site? How could someone see that as the solution?

Other large subway systems around the world manage to keep their stations and systems in much better condition than the MTA does for the same cost, including systems with very old infrastructure like NYC. How do they do it? The MTA needs to quit with the gimmicks.

Nathanael September 13, 2015 - 12:39 am

“The MTA has serious problems gettings its “private partners” to uphold their end of the deal in just about everything they do. ”

This seems to be one of the biggest problems the MTA is having.

Heck, it’s not just private partners: even *public* partners are not doing their job. Even the Department of Buildings refused to do its job (monitor the buildings, determine which ones were defective before the MTA started construction), which cost the MTA money on the 2nd Avenue Subway.

Corruption, corruption, corruption.

Larry Littlefield September 10, 2015 - 10:07 am

“The CBC took a look at station repair costs, and it wasn’t pretty. Of the 42 station renovation efforts under the last five-year capital plan, 28 were over budget, and 10 saw their costs double.”

Did they say why, other than ADA?

Station renovation uses the same unions/workers/contractors that building renovation and construction does. And with NYC construction booming, prices have soared. The MTA would be wise to cut back on station renovation until there is a deep recession in construction, and then ramp it up.

The construction unions got a bunch of retroactive pension increases in the 1990s, and contractors cut back on their contributions to multi-employer pension funds. The workers, union officials and construction executives that benefitted have retired to Florida, leaving the multi-employer pension funds in a deep hole and the industry looking for a patsy to fill it. Since the MTA is required to use union contractors (but the private sector is not), it is the patsy. The MTA is filling that hole to the benefit of private developers, past and present.

Union construction also means shirkers are protected. Which means more management and punchlist.

Then there is lead paint. It might be the excuse from changing painting from maintenance into a capital project. The subway used to have the best, most durable paint. Unfortunately, that meant the most lead.

Between the shirking workers, sleazy contractors, and environmental rules, you can have three supervisors with different responsibilities — contractor, MTA, MTA environmental — watching one worker do something.

Nathanael September 13, 2015 - 12:41 am

Is the MTA actually required to use union labor for bid-out construction? I think they aren’t.

I think they’re just required to pay “prevailing wage”. In which case, a non-union shop which paid union rates could bid.

The trouble is really at the sleazy construction contractors, who seem to revel in doing bad work and overcharging for it. There’s got to be a way of hiring a reputable contractor and getting the work done which the MTA is paying for.

22rr September 10, 2015 - 10:31 am

Does anyone have a succinct summary of why every other major city in the world can keep their subway metro systems in a “state of good repair” but we can’t even do this most basic of tasks? Thanks.

22rr September 10, 2015 - 10:59 am

The other sad thing is that the stations that the MTA considers to be “in a state of good repair” would be an utter failure in London, Berlin, Tokyo, Hong Kong…

Benjamin Kabak September 10, 2015 - 11:13 am

Many factors are at play, but consider the following:

1. Shoddy construction with water table issues. The subway stations right near the surface suffer from water intrusion and early 1900s construction that just wasn’t good. Compare that with Paris’ deep stations that are much more water tight.

2. Shoddy construction generally. The pre-Sandy new South Ferry and the Archer Ave. extensions come to mind.

3. Graft and corruption.

4. 24/7 service.

Somewhere in there you’ll also find major issues and costs associated with lead paint remediation and unfunded ADA mandates.

Christopher September 10, 2015 - 11:50 am

ADA is the right thing to do for a variety of reasons including the general aging of our population, we are all “disabled” by our environments at various points in our life. It’s about building a usable environment for a variety of users.

End rant

Chicago’s system is 24 hours and their stations are in great shape. Even the subway stations look better than ours. Not nearly as fancy with the tile work but functional and utilitarian. Of course they don’t have the number of riders we do but they are clean and repaired and painted and growing number of them have elevators.

Benjamin Kabak September 10, 2015 - 12:02 pm

Agreed with you on ADA, but we have to be honest about the costs. It’s not cheap to implement for similar reasons I’ve discussed regarding MTA contractor spending.

As to Chicago, the system is not in as good a shape as it looks, especially the underground blue line stations in the Loop. They’ve had SOGR issues nearly as severe as the MTA’s.

Bolwerk September 10, 2015 - 12:18 pm

I know I’m probably in the minority on this one, but I really think we deserve a break on the ADA as long as it’s not being funded by the feds. Yes, we want strategic accessibility to some stations, but we also want system expansion. New construction should and will be accessibility.

The goal of the ADA should be mobility for the disabled, not accessibility to this or what mode. We can have mobility for the disabled with subsidized taxis for them.

Our society really gets it backwards: roads for the able-bodied and transit for the decrepit/injured/disabled. It should be the other way around.

SEAN September 10, 2015 - 2:05 pm

I usually agree with you Bolwerk, but I cant here.

On the disability front, transit is for everyone. I think you are actually describing the issue that Access-A-Ride faces & not transit on the whole. If that is what you really ment – then I do agree since paratransit costs are way out of proportion based on benefit. That is NOT to say they aren’t vital to those who depend on it, rather there needs to be a better way to deliver it.

And take it from someone who is visually challenged & who also deals with mild CP.

Bolwerk September 10, 2015 - 7:40 pm

I don’t mean there should be no ADA compliance at all, but these costs and cost increases for full compliance? Unsustainable and not defensible on the grounds of the size of population served. I’m thinking specifically of ramps, elevators, and wheelchair accessibility. Things like properly sized hand rails and surface markings probably don’t add much to the costs of a renovation.

The ADA is a billion little things and a few of them are very expensive.

SEAN September 10, 2015 - 8:48 pm

I’m going to suggest reading titles II & III of the ADA without the legalese.

I don’t know why this is, but new elevators in transit applications are required to have stainless steel cabs & I’m sure that’s costly. As for ramps, the slope needs to be gradual enough for ease of movement for wheelchairs.

To lower costs in some situations, ADA wavers can be granted if an undue burden can be established. But the MTA has more legal outs against ADA compliance, it’s almost ridiculous. The only other agency that has that much leeway is SEPTA. The MBTA, an even older system doesn’t come close

Nathanael September 13, 2015 - 12:17 am

The stainless steel isn’t a legal requirement. It’s a durability issue. Nothing else holds up well to the salty water dragged in by the passengers from outside, let alone the other things which might be spilled.

Nathanael September 13, 2015 - 12:27 am

SEPTA is, for what it’s worth, doing a pretty damn good job at wheelchair access. They rebuilt the entire Market St. Elevated (now all wheelchair-accessible), then the whole Frankford Elevated (now all wheelchair-accessible), and they’ve been converting one or two subway stations at a time for a while.

At the same time, SEPTA’s working on all the Regional Rail stations, some of which are in appallingly dreadful shape (basically asphalt patches by the tracks) and so need stations built practically from scratch in order to provide wheelchair access (not to mention general safety). They’ve been managing a few of those every year too.

And at the *same time*, SEPTA’s been working on the monstrous City Hall station, which is a real nightmare for designing wheelchair access given that City Hall, the heaviest masonry building in the world, is *built on top of it*, giving very little structural leeway to work with. They came up with various creative solutions.

In New York, nearly all the subway stations are under streets — which means comparatively easy access for renovations.

Nathanael September 13, 2015 - 12:34 am

And since you mentioned the MBTA, their list of stations without wheelchair access is:
— Wollaston (wheelchair access designed)
— Bowdoin (planned to be closed when Government Center reopens)
— Boylston (historic monument and as such practically unmodifiable, also very very close to Arlington station)
— Symphony (wheelchair access designed)
— Hynes (wheelchair access designed)
— 31 very closely spaced streetcar stops on the Green Line (plans for wheelchair access involve stop consolidation)
— various Commuter Rail stations, being done one at a time

Boston’s MBTA, of course, is actually broke, and was “born broke”, as a famous report put it. It is also building a rather expensive extension (the Green Line extension) too, partly because it’s legally *obligated* to.

Contrast New York. 😛

Nathanael September 13, 2015 - 12:21 am

Adding wheelchair accessibility after the fact is:
(1) dirt cheap on surface-level lines
(2) pretty damn cheap on elevated lines
(3) moderately expensive in cut-and-cover systems
(4) very expensive in deep-bore tunnels

Most of the parts of the NYC Subway system with the serious lack of accessibilty problems are actually the elevated lines. There’s really no excuse for not fixing them.

The reasonably-priced solutions for wheelchair access at elevated stations often involve moving the headhouse over a few hundred feet, which may involve acquiring some land. In other cities they just DO this.

As for the cost increases? That seems to be a New York Construction Contractor problem. Nothing to do with the ADA at all.

Bolwerk September 13, 2015 - 11:03 am

There are hard cases in New York, where platforms would simply need to be widened to meet ADA requirements. I guess it would be nice if they just tackled the easy ones first.

What did they do at Fulton Street? The 2/3 used to have a very narrow platform, but I haven’t used it in nearly 10 years. Map says it’s wheelchair accessible now.

The IRT at Union Square seems like an even bigger nightmare with the narrow, curved platforms. That complex is ADA compliant, except the 4/5/6.

Nathanael September 16, 2015 - 12:06 am

“There are hard cases in New York, where platforms would simply need to be widened to meet ADA requirements”

Yeah, if you need platform-widening *in an underground station*, then you have a genuinely hard problem.

It really would be nice if they bothered to do the easier ones — the elevated stations — while they were *closing them for months to rebuild them practically from the ground up*.

The failure to do that sort of thing is what makes me think the MTA is not acting in good faith when it comes to the ADA.

SEAN September 10, 2015 - 3:37 pm


As I recall, Chicago has an extremely high watertable in the loop. As a result, you do see leakage there. The reall issue with the rapid transit service involves infrastructure that’s 100-plus years old outside the loop that has never been renovated. There are stations throughout the system that still have wooden platforms & headhouses. However to the CTA’s credit, they have been aggressive in the renovation department lately.

Nathanael September 13, 2015 - 12:22 am

Interestingly CTA is still using wooden platforms in new construction. (But they’re varnishing them, or whatever they’re coating them with, pretty impressively.)

Tower18 September 10, 2015 - 11:23 pm

There’s work to be done in Chicago for sure, but within the last 10-15 years they have *completely* rebuilt: the entire Brown Line, the entire Pink Line, half of the Red Line (South Side), including all stations and track. They’re renovated about half the downtown Red Line stations. And at least twice (for whatever reason…) they’ve done substantial infrastructure work on the Blue Line, following some derailments and severe deterioration in the early 2000s.

Yes it’s a smaller system, so rehabbing an entire “line” is different than here. But on the Brown and Red lines alone, 11 stations on the Brown Line and 9 stations on the South Side Red Line were torn down and rebuilt from the ground up in 2 years (Brown, remained open) and 5 months (Red, total shutdown), respectively.

So keep that in mind when the MTA can only get around to doing “repair” of 8 stations per year.

Oh, and they seem to have no trouble running in the snow, so there’s that.

g September 11, 2015 - 9:16 am

All the Ohare branch Blue line stations are also going through sequential renovations, the worst station in the system (Wilson red line) is being fully replaced, a huge new Red Line terminal at 95th St is being built, and a new combined loop station is replacing two dilapidated original stations. The stations probably in the worst repair are on the Forrest Park branch of the Blue line but the CTA seems to be angling for an entire line rebuild like they did on the Red. The city is also assembling funding for the multi-billion dollar full rebuild of the Red/Purple line from Wrigleyville to the Howard terminal.

The pace of work in recent years has been nothing short of incredible compared to previous decades.

Nathanael September 13, 2015 - 12:15 am

In addition to everything noted by Tower18 and g, it’s also worth noting that:
— the “Green Line” was mostly rebuilt in the 1990s, but it’s had major spot repairs in recent years, and a couple of new (well, “revived”) stations added.

— the Loop track & signal has been almost completely renewed, the structure has been repaired (a multi-year job), and the stations have been replaced and made ADA-compliant one at a time.

— The Yellow Line got a new station and is getting major trackwork soon.

Not all of the plan is funded.

But if the big Red/Purple plan and the Forest Park Blue Line rebuild get done, nearly all the CTA stations will be ADA-accessible.

(The exceptions will be:
— On the Loop, State/Lake, Adams/Wabash, and Quincy
— On the State Street Subway (Red Line), Harrison, Monroe, and North/Clybourn
— On the Dearborn Street Subway (Blue Line), LaSalle and Monroe
— On the O’Hare branch of the Blue Line, 8 additional stations.

Even most of those will have had substantial refurbishments since 2000.)

In addition, all the track on the entire system will have been replaced fairly recently, all the signals will have been updated, and all the structures will have been rehabilitated.

Chicago had a major backlog just like NY did. Chicago has constant funding problems just like NY does. But Chicago has tackled the state-of-good-repair challenge with gusto and is succeeding.

SEAN September 11, 2015 - 5:30 pm

Although when the CTA closed the entire Green line for over a year for a complete rehab, it took quite a while for the ridership to return to prerenovation levels.

Tower18 September 12, 2015 - 1:53 pm

The issues with ridership on the Green Line go beyond the shutdown. For one, when they did the shutdown, they didn’t replace some potential high-ridership stations along 63rd. Second, the neighborhoods the Green Line passes through have continued to rapidly deteriorate since 1993.

Look at a satellite view of the South Side Green Line on Google Maps…it basically passes through 50% vacant land within a 1/4 mile of itself. Not great for ridership. So most of the potential riders would come via Chicago’s grid-based bus network, but if you’re already on a bus, people would ride 1/2 mile farther and take the Red Line, which was faster to Loop destinations.

Nathanael September 12, 2015 - 11:59 pm

…the extreme proximity of the Red Line had a substantial effect.

With the 2000s rise in CTA ridership, the Red Line started filling up again and the Green Line ridership recovered as a result.

Larry Littlefield September 10, 2015 - 12:55 pm

Perhaps they can figure out where the water is getting in, and turn it into an architectural feature somehow.

Nathanael September 13, 2015 - 12:37 am

“Many factors are at play, but consider the following:

1. Shoddy construction….
2. Shoddy construction generally….
3. Graft and corruption….”

Seems to sum it up, doesn’t it? In NYC, the contractors for the MTA mostly overcharge and deliver defective products. (The sandhogs who dig the big bored tunnels with the TBMs seem to be the only ones delivering reliable product.)

That’s not acceptable. I wouldn’t accept it for a home renovation project; why does the MTA accept it?

adirondacker12800 September 13, 2015 - 2:57 am

The Attorney General has a very nice webform you can fill out to report graft, corruption etc. I’m sure they would be willing to take phone calls and conventional mail too.

Nathanael September 13, 2015 - 7:01 pm

(a) The construction contractors seem to have figured out legal ways to commit this form of graft. Basically, they’ve managed to find ways to write and sign contracts which *allow* them to overcharge and deliver defective products. (“The contract didn’t say that South Ferry wasn’t supposed to have floods of water leaking into it.” Real example.)

(b) Schneiderman has a LOT on his plate, including several dozen major frauds by banks which are much larger-scale than this.
(c ) Preet Bharata also has his hands full putting our legislators behind bars.


The correct thing to do is for the MTA to simply stop contracting with these guys. Hire contractors from Boston or Philadelphia or something. This has to be legal.

adirondacker12800 September 13, 2015 - 8:16 pm

It’s not the contractor’s fault that the MTA writes byzantine contracts. It’s New Yorker’s fault.

From Boston? Like these?


Nathanael September 16, 2015 - 12:04 am

Heh. Not like those. Boston has had its own, very serious contractor problems.

Though NY seems to dwarf Boston in the sheer *number* of contractor problems. And it would be good to understand why… maybe Boston’s better at complaining about contractor abuses and getting contractors blacklisted?

Rob September 10, 2015 - 10:34 am

A question re “redistribution scheme to ensure that those stations in Queens get the same investment as the ones in Midtown.” WHY SHOULD THEY? Aside from ridership differentials, we are not quite yet a socialist country, although I suppose that would be a good thing in NYC eyes.

Bolwerk September 10, 2015 - 10:55 am

Not quite? Well, when democratic control over the economy sets in, be sure to alert us.

BoerumBum September 10, 2015 - 2:35 pm

Because a road that leads nowhere serves no one.

Bolwerk September 10, 2015 - 11:03 am

P3s = public risk, private payoffs. Then again, not so different than what we have now, but not a solution.

They should look into letting smaller firms and contractors into the fold. Some of these are rather small to have big hierarchical union structures, but they can probably do good work cheaply. Is re-tiling a station wall *that* different from re-tiling a bathroom?

Larry Littlefield September 10, 2015 - 11:09 am

Well, subway tile needs to last a lot longer. Otherwise no.

Bolwerk September 10, 2015 - 12:13 pm

Does it? I would guess subways need more structural replacement every 50 years or so. You can expect to have to replace tile when you replace the beams behind the wall (or whatever). I assume water damage is a common issue too.

Tile itself can last for centuries.

Larry Littlefield September 10, 2015 - 12:54 pm

The guy who did my bathroom told me we can only expect the work to last 15 to 20 years these days.

SEAN September 10, 2015 - 2:12 pm

Not sure on that. Residential like any other renovation should last a lot longer if maintained correctly. Not trying to compare the two, just saying.

tacony September 10, 2015 - 3:05 pm

If maintained correctly? The MTA doesn’t maintain anything. And you probably clean your bathroom fairly regularly, whereas the tiles in the NYC subway appear to never receive cleaning, despite there being a lot more steel dust in the air in the subway than in your bathroom.

Eric September 10, 2015 - 5:16 pm

Steel dust in the air doesn’t hurt walls. Moisture in the air does. There’s more moisture in the bathroom.

SEAN September 10, 2015 - 8:56 pm

Witch is why residential codes require fans in the bathroom

Nathanael September 12, 2015 - 11:58 pm

Larry, you got an incompetent to do your bathroom. I know how to get bathroom work which will last for at least 30 years, probably 50.

You have to know a bunch of stuff. For one thing, you have to order your own materials, from the correct suppliers. Then you have to hire workmen (and women) who know how to work with those materials. It’s more expensive than building disposable junk, obviously.

Bolwerk September 13, 2015 - 11:05 am

Larry probably hired Peter Schiff to do his bathroom!

LLQBTT September 10, 2015 - 1:43 pm

Other than fluorescent lights replacing incandescents in the ’70s at my home station, there have been no changes to my home station since it opened 100 years ago. That is neglect.

Benjamin Kabak September 10, 2015 - 2:00 pm

Which station is your home station? Most of the 100 year old stations were overhauled mid-century when platforms were expanded. That’s still 60-70 years of no work though.

tacony September 10, 2015 - 3:16 pm

…and the MTA is less than 60-70 years old, so it’s accurate to state that the MTA hasn’t seriously performed station renovations of these stations ever. I think most people would agree however that the 100+ year old stations are mostly not the worst-maintained in the system, although I do see that the Chambers Street J platform is 102 years old as of last month…

LLQBTT September 10, 2015 - 4:56 pm


Montrose Ave. Except for Lorimer St, the same can be said for most every other underground station along the L.

22rr September 10, 2015 - 4:44 pm

It’s all just lipstick on a pig…unless we can get good, reliable subway service (which doesn’t get all screwed up on sundays), not to mention:
-cellular service in all stations
-electronic real-time wait times on all platforms
-elevators for handicapped people
-drink machines on all platforms
-places to sit and wait on all platforms
-no rats
-glass partitions to keep people from falling onto the tracks
-circulation through turnstiles in a way that makes sense spatially

tacony September 11, 2015 - 9:29 am

-drink machines on all platforms

What? The MTA has more food and drink concessions on the platforms than most world transit systems and I’ve never heard people advocate for more. It’s my understanding that there used to be food, drink, candy, gum machines on the platforms but they were banned at some point in the 70s in a bid to reduce litter, which sounds like it was a smart move. I’m surprised you didn’t include AC or at least better ventilation or at least fans in your wishlist of basics that would improve service.

22rr September 11, 2015 - 10:23 am

I’d much rather deal with a clean, polite drink machine than a surly kiosk guy…

You’re right, AC in the summer and better ventilation would be smart. That was a mistake to forget that.

Less confusing signage would be good too.

Ryan September 10, 2015 - 5:35 pm

We can and have talked about the problem with these capital projects’ costs, but New York City can’t afford a future without an expanding subway network.


Wake me up when the East Side is actually accessible to the LIRR. Last I checked, projecting out the rate at which the target opening date moves backwards relative to time moving forwards STILL reveals an effective opening date of “Never.” The current, this-time-we-promise opening date, isn’t a whole hell of a lot better than “Never.”

Anyone want to put even money down that I’ll actually be able to ride the Q up to 86 and 2nd by New Year’s Day of 2017? No? How about riding a T train to anywhere? Phases 3 and 4 are all but canceled and the bad, bad, bad Phase 2 mercifully seems to be heading towards a similar fate. Remember when Second Avenue was supposed to be a new trunk line and usher in meaningful expansion to the outer boroughs? Too bad about that.

The high cost of doing business is a second-string problem. The key issues are a lack of vision, a lack of willpower, and perhaps most critically, the fact that what pathetically narrow-scoped projects we do get shovels into the ground for n e v e r f i n i s h.

New York’s going to have to find a way to make this thing work without meaningful expansion of transit, because meaningful expansion of transit is no longer something that happens here. Time was we planned for entire systems of future subways criss-crossing the city and connecting everyone to everywhere; now, we can’t even get a tunnel that mostly already existed open without 30 years and counting of ‘work in progress.’ The big ideas – the top-down overhauls, the modern Second System, the comprehensive plans – only nerds on the internet discuss these things, because there’s no way we could seriously propose a Second System! That’s simply too unrealistic.

VLM September 10, 2015 - 5:53 pm

In case you haven’t noticed, you too are a nerd on the Internet. You have a kernel of point, but mostly you’re off base and even had to hedge to make your point. Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway will open. If it’s December 31, 2016 or March 31, 2017, it’s not going to matter in the long run.

If you think the real issue is a few months’ delay and not astronomical costs, well, you’re just wrong.

Ryan September 10, 2015 - 7:02 pm

A few months?

Leaving aside the work that was done on East Side No Access back in the 60s, the clock really starts on it back in 1999. At that time, it was estimated that we could all be taking trains between Ronkonkoma and Grand Central starting ten years later in 2009.

In the 16 years since then, the opening date has actually managed to fall by 14 years and now sits in 2023, which is actually better than the capital-N Never we were at before because now the opening date projects out to “merely” being 2079 instead of actually producing an infinite discontinuity because the opening date was being delayed as fast as the flow of time.

And that is the real point. Meanwhile, 34 St on the 7 Line was delayed by 15 months and appears to be finally opening two days and change from the time of this comment, unless and until some exciting problem is uncovered that halts service expansion at the last minute.

Somewhere between 15 months (the 7) and 70-100 years (ESA depending on whether you want to charitably figure that they expected to have it done by 1979 when they started digging the tunnel in the 60s, or if you want to start the clock at 2009 when the first LIRR train was supposed to roll through to Grand Central) is the actual amount of delay that we’re going to experience between when the MTA promises the Q extension and when the Q starts bringing people to the Upper East Side.

Cost escalation is entirely secondary for a number of reasons (the fact that this region basically runs on Monopoly Money being just one of those reasons) and particularly when the question isn’t ‘if’ subway expansion is going to be delayed but rather whether your delay will merely be a year or so or if you’ll be waiting decades for trains to roll through an already-finished tunnel. And of course, that’s if you’re lucky enough to be a direct beneficiary of one of the few (extremely narrowly scoped) subway expansion projects that made it out of the ‘nerds on the internet’ stage of planning and actually got committed to a budget.

You know and I know and everyone knows that more subways are needed in transit-starved sections of, e.g., Northern Queens or Southern Brooklyn. There’s an entire Second System worth of desire lines that can be drawn on maps and not a single damn one is ever going to get past the line on a map phase because there’s no vision and no willpower for meaningful transit expansion and that’s not because these things cost too much money but rather because they always, always, always, inevitably take too much t i m e.

Ralfff September 11, 2015 - 9:53 am

You’re right and one can see it in the endless excuses, whining, and begging that is done at all levels of regional government and within the MTA. They blame the riders for intolerance of shutdowns rather than shut down lines long enough continuously to finish track upgrades, namely CBTC, in a timely way. They announce that they’re asking the feds for $100 million for transformers to improve L frequency… this year, instead of just paying this relatively paltry amount last year or before and getting it done. Everyone and their mother comes out to pat themselves on the back over the most minor improvements, but when it comes to what should be one-time costs like ADA and lead paint removal, it drags on for years and is used as an excuse to achieve nothing, even as stations actually being rebuilt don’t get complete ADA improvements.

That’s why PPPs fit a culture of failure; our culture, so perfectly. “I can’t do anything right so some rich entity must step in lest we go from nebulous ‘world city’ status to Baltimore”, as if cities are defined by how much money they throw around rather than how much they actually get done.

Nathanael September 12, 2015 - 11:56 pm

“when it comes to what should be one-time costs like ADA and lead paint removal, it drags on for years and is used as an excuse to achieve nothing, even as stations actually being rebuilt don’t get complete ADA improvements.”

Which is illegal, incidentally.

There’s something really messed up in the MTA management, and I can’t quite figure out what it is.

But you’ve summarized the resulting pattern of behavior quite well, Ralfff.

John Doe September 10, 2015 - 5:48 pm

drink machines on all platforms?!?! are you insane?!? we need to abolish food and drink once and for all! why do you think we have so many rats?!? because new Yorkers are filthy. we would also be saving a ton of money on cleanup/sanitation.

22rr September 10, 2015 - 10:51 pm

It works amazingly well in Japan. After getting in that habit, whenever I’m waiting absurdly long on the platform in NYC for a train, I crave an affordable bottle of water or unsweetened iced green tea.

Brooklynite September 10, 2015 - 11:08 pm

Sadly, New Yorkers are such pigs that a ban on everything edible except water is warranted. This is why you can’t have nice things…

22rr September 11, 2015 - 10:21 am

Why should we have different rules for New Yorkers than for the good citizens of other global cities?

Bolwerk September 12, 2015 - 10:11 pm

How many cities around the world allow eating? It seems verboten in much of the USA, at least frowned upon in most of Europe.

Brooklynite September 10, 2015 - 11:04 pm

Oddly prophetic timing. The day that Ben posts about “State of Good Repair,” a rail condition that had been ongoing for at least 12 hours caused a G train to derail at Hoyt-Schermerhorn in Brooklyn. (per MTA site)

Tower18 September 10, 2015 - 11:28 pm

It had been over 24 hours. I saw it mid-day yesterday (Wednesday) and it was ongoing Thursday evening. And then I see there was a derailment around 11pm, but coincidentally there was to be a full shutdown of the G tonight starting at 11? Did the last train out derail? LOL.

AMH September 11, 2015 - 3:05 pm

Not a full shutdown, just from Hoyt to Church with transfer at Bedford-Nostrand. Wonder if something similar will run over the weekend.

J12 September 11, 2015 - 9:12 am

It’s not impossible to achieve a state of good repair, we are just unwilling to spend the money and resources required to do it. Calling it sisyphean masks the reality that we underfund transit.

Given the limited resources allocated to transit, there is a real sense in which expansion and new capital projects compete with ongoing maintenance and repairs of the existing system. I am not at all convinced that expansion of the system should take priority over improvements and upgrades for existing lines and stations. Sure in a perfect world we would have both, but given the reality we need to be able to decide whether making the existing service better, or adding to the system, is the better option. It’s not always obvious, but the expansion of the system is attractive to many decision makers for reasons that have nothing to do with improving the overall transit system and everything to do with political concerns or enriching themselves.

I have to agree that ADA compliance often costs more than the benefits it provides. Again, in a perfect world we would be able to provide access to all public transit for all people. But in the reality of constrained resources, we need to focus more on results than on some ideal of fairness and equality. As long as there is some way for the disabled to get around; like paratransit, subsidized private transportation, etc; it is ok if people with certain disabilities can’t access the subway. When you consider that every dollar spent on ADA compliance is a dollar less for overall system maintenance and investment, and then consider the number of people affected in each case, it’s hard to justify ADA compliance on an economic basis.

Finally, public-private partnerships, station adoption, and all the variants on these ideas are distractions. The MTA needs stable long-term revenue streams, and there isn’t enough money in selling station naming rights, etc, to provide anything more than a quick hit of one-time cash. PPP is also not going to provide much unless you are talking about privatizing the system entirely. In that case, we might as well just raise fares to $7 or $8 and let the MTA continue to run it.

22rr September 11, 2015 - 10:38 am

ADA expensive and not a good overall value to the system? Maybe true, but it’s the law and there’s no way around it. It’s given the construction industry tons of additional costs and headaches since it was implemented — that said, complete access for all is a noble goal and I hope we can achieve it without sacrificing much else

SEAN September 11, 2015 - 5:25 pm

ADA expensive and not a good overall value to the system? I dare anyone who holds such views to say that to someone who is disabled & depends on transit to get around. Better yet, face off against a disability rights group & see how far you get.

Bolwerk September 13, 2015 - 10:54 am

I really think it should depend on the disability and the costs of implementation. I presume the costs for your disability are not that expensive to bear.

The cost of getting wheelchair access to the IRT platforms at Union Square would probably be similar to the costs of re-tracking the entire Rockaway Beach Line, maybe even of adding an ADA-compliant station or two on top of that.

Nathanael September 15, 2015 - 11:58 pm

“The cost of getting wheelchair access to the IRT platforms at Union Square”

This is actually one of the easy ones, though it requires the cooperation of NYC DOT.

Move the road.

Close Union Square East from 14th St. to 15th St. Reduce it to a local access road north of there, or close it completely if you can fit truck turnarounds onto 15th and 16th.

Direct traffic from Park Avenue to 4th Avenue around the west side of Union Square. Divert traffic from 4th Avenue to Park Avenue via 3rd avenue.

You can then drop elevators straight onto the platforms and build a ground-level headhouse.

Big plus to this: enlarged, easier-to-access, improved Union Square Park!

Nathanael September 16, 2015 - 12:02 am

This sort of “outside the box thinking” is what’s been done for “difficult” stations in Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago.

But there’s something broken in the way politicians and MTA officials think in NYC which prevents this from being done. It was trivial to put wheelchair access in at Smith-9th Streets *by putting a ground level headhouse on the east side of the canal*, but they just never even tried.

Nathanael September 12, 2015 - 11:54 pm

It’s pretty much trivial to make new construction ADA-compliant; you just have to have architects and engineers who aren’t lazy asses.

Retrofits are more trouble, but they’re actually a bonanza for the construction industry, assuming the architects and engineers are willing to do their jobs.

Calling it a “headache” for the construction industry is absolutely backwards. It’s a goldmine for the competent construction firms. It’s only a “headache” for lazy incompetents who should never be hired at all.

Nathanael September 12, 2015 - 11:52 pm

ADA compliance in the subway saves a LOT more than it costs.

In fact, the LACK of ADA compliance in the subway costs the MTA billions of dollars yearly in the “Access-a-Ride” program. If you fix the ADA problems on the subway, make taxis ADA compliant, and make Uber & Lyft ADA compliant, then you can pretty much get rid of Access-a-Ride.

ADA compliance overall is not optional. And it will never be optional again. Every other city in the US is complying with the ADA and having no problems whatsoever doing so

New York does not get to engage in special pleading. The ADA is not a problem at all. The MTA is the problem.

Nathanael September 12, 2015 - 11:48 pm

State of Good Repair is entirely achievable and completely realistic.

Given sufficient funding.

And bids which come in at reasonable prices.

London Underground has achieved state of good repair, and they had bigger problems than NYC did to start with. But they also had a large, dedicated, national-government funding stream.

What “state of good repair” means is, in fact:
(1) following appropriate maintenance schedules
(2) replacing depreciating parts at or before the end of their useful life.

This is absolutely bog-standard management accounting and every competent organization tries to do state of good repair *all the time*.

Of course you can’t do it if you’re underfunded. Then you get the infamous “deferred maintenance”, which is the primary problem the NYC Subway has had since the 1970s.

(Worth noting: before the 1950s, it was pretty much in a state of good repair.)


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