Archive for MTA Absurdity
As part of the MTA’s effort at making travel easier for parents with small children, kids 44 inches tall and under may ride the subways and buses for free when accompanied by an adult, but this rule has some strange consequences. The problem, as one Staten Island Council member recently noted, is that height isn’t consistent across ages. As growth charts show, some kids may reach 44 inches at 4 while others may not get there until almost 7 years of age.
Debi Rose wants the MTA to address this problem by moving toward an age-based solution. Based on the 50th percentile on the height charts, children five and under can ride for free. “Due to healthy eating and diet, and the fact that some families are just predisposed towards height — towards tallness — they are being charged the full fare for children who look like they’re older than 5, but in essence are not,” Rose said to the Staten Island Advance.
Of course, age is just as challenging to enforce as a height limit. Kids taller than 44 inches frequently pop under the turnstiles, often at the urging of their parents, and there’s no real way for a bus driver to ascertain a child’s age. Still, for those that embrace the honor system, an age limit seems more reasonable than a height limit, no?
Over the years, we’ve heard a lot about the two intertwined MTA issues: deferred maintenance and sloppy inspection efforts. The city’s subway network suffered for decades from deferred maintenance, and the agency has struggled to maintain even a state of mediocre repair, let alone a good one. Meanwhile, falsified signal inspection efforts have led to multiple arrests in an ongoing scandal. Now, a new MTA Inspector General’s report sheds light on insufficient structural inspections as well further highlighting the problems with and challenges facing the MTA.
The main gist of the MTA IG report — available here as a PDF — is that the MTA’s efforts at inspecting structural elements of the aboveground portions of the subway is deficient. I’ll get into the details shortly, but the MTA essentially accepted the report and its findings. In a letter to the MTA IG, then-Transit President Tom Prendergast had this to say:
The report and the ongoing discussions with your office during the analysis have been instrumental in helping us look at our overall responsibilities related to structural inspections in a way that will help ensure we not only address any/all deficiencies, but also get the maximum benefit from [our inspections]. We are in agreement with the substance of your findings and all recommendations and are taking a number of actions with respect to the structural inspection process at NYC Transit.
And now some details. From a top-line perspective, the IG found that inspections that should have been conducted annually weren’t happening on time, that no one at Transit was responsible for the Rockaway Viaduct inspections, that inspections of “hard-to-reach station ceilings” were already two years behind schedule, and that abandoned sections of stations that currently provide structural support to active parts haven’t been inspected. If this is now making you fear that your next train is going to tumble off an elevated bridge when the structural supports fail, I don’t completely blame you.
The report goes on to assess each issue on a case-by-case level. For instance, on the elevated sections of the J and Z trains’ BMT Jamaica Line, IG inspectors found $25 million worth of corrosion in various supports. The reports slams Transit’s Maintenance of Way inspectors for missing the damage. “These defects did not pose immediate danger,” the IG said, “but were nevertheless serious and should be corrected as part of a future capital project.”
How the inspectors missed these problems is even more damning. Essentially, they didn’t do a thorough job. The corrosion was evident from the station platforms, and the Inspector General concluded that MOW inspectors “‘had not focused’ on elevated-station-related defects for the past several years…because its inspectors had erroneously believed that Station Maintenance was responsible for conducting these inspections.” This is a classic left hand-right hand problem with potentially serious consequences.
The other explanations follow suit. We know there are issues with vaulted ceilings as we’ve seen them collapse. We know New York City’s bridges are structural deficient because it’s been in the news for years. One aspect of the report, though, struck me as particularly short-sighted, and that area concerns the former 9th Ave. terminal of the Culver Shuttle.
According to the Inspector General, the MTA “does not inspect all structures that are no longer used to provide service to passengers but that still serve as supports for structures above or adjacent to them.” Pick your jaw up off the floor, and I’ll continue. “Most such structures,” the report explains, “are abandoned sections of stations that support structures above, such as active stations, tracks, buildings, or streets.” One is an abandoned station at 9th Ave. on the D train’s West End line.
For decades, the Culver Shuttle’s former terminal has sat unused and above it, is an active station on the D line. Here’s how this tale plays out:
During our review of the West End Rehabilitation, we asked the Chief Engineer about the condition of the lower level of the 9th Avenue Station in Brooklyn, which is part of the West End Line, but has been abandoned since 1975. The lower level supports the upper, active level of the station, including its platforms and tracks. The Chief Engineer told us that personnel from MOW Engineering have been inspecting the lower level on an annual basis. He added that the structure is deteriorated in that it has dozens of “A” defects. He also acknowledged that MOW has known for decades that the structure was in need of repair but had not corrected the conditions. When we asked the Chief Engineer why MOW had allowed the condition to persist for years, he had no explanation. However, he noted that while the structure was in need of immediate repair, in his judgment structural collapse was not imminent because it was “overengineered.” The general superintendent for iron operations26 echoed this view, and also told us that the station was further protected by the five mile-per-hour speed restrictions placed on trains because of the curve in track just south of the station.
After the IG started poking around, the MTA initiated a $20 million repair program to shore up the station supports. When push came to shove, the money materialized.
Ultimately, this moral of this report is one that urges caution and structural soundness, two elements we should expect out of a subway system tasked with moving millions. It also highlights the physical dangers of deferred maintenance. The MTA faces a crushing backlog of good repair projects and simply cannot keep up with demand. Even as Transit vows to improve its inspection efforts, delayed repairs will mount. As the report says, “In our view, NYC Transit simply can no longer tolerate the continued risk presented by critical structure-inspection deficiencies that safety-related structural defects will go undetected and unaddressed.” In other words, better safe than sorry.
In what is possibly the weirdest MTA-related story in years, DNA Info reports today that the 7 line extension is safe from electric eels. Now, an astute reader may be wondering how this came about a year before the project is due to wrap and why anyone would be focusing on electric eels in the first place. Well, the story is quite strange.
As Jill Colvin reports, MTA Board Member Charlie Moerdler raised the issue at a recent board member when he claimed to remember eels coming ashore and wreaking havoc on metal pipes during construction of the Javits Center. Moerdler helped the Javits Center secure an exemption to New York’s plumbing rules, and the convention center received permission to use plastic piping. “That’s the issue. Does it apply to the 7 line and does it apply to the area where the Hudson Yards is?” he asked.
Colvin dug up the March 1980 Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Javits Center and could find no mention of electric eels raising any alarms. She also spoke with the eel project coordinator at the Hudson River Eel Project who said that electric eels do not live in New York Harbor or the Hudson River. “I don’t think you have to worry about electric eel damage,” Chris Bowser said. The MTA, meanwhile, has no plans to to eel-proof the West Side subway extension, and I for one am glad that’s settled.
The MTA’s various elevators do not have the most sterling of reputations. The ones necessary to leave deep stations in Upper Manhattan and Clark St. are dismal and foreboding. Many of the newer ones smell bad, and they’re breaking down constantly. Sometimes, those two problems are related.
Enter the LIRR’s Woodside elevator. Earlier this week, LIRR President Helena Williams shared some gruesome details about this lift. Calling it a “vertical urinal,” Williams explained how this elevator is going to need to be replaced because too many people have peed in it. According to LIRR figures, the elevator was functional only 58 percent of the time last month, lowest in the system, and no one is too pleased to have to ride it.
Strangely enough, as DNA Info notes, the station complex has five other elevators that aren’t nearly as contaminated and public restrooms as well. Though, whether or not you’d actually want to use those restrooms is a very personal decision. But no matter the answer, please just stop peeing on the transit system’s escalators.
Over the past few months, Matt Flegenheimer of The Times has documented a few of what can charitably described as the MTA’s operating quirks. He wrote about the mad dash that happens between uptown express and local trains at 34th Street when an express Q faces off with a local N, and he profiled the way 6th Ave.-bound commuters at Essex/Delancey fill the staircase as they attempt to guess if the F will show up before the M or vice versa. A modern system, of course, would automate service announcements concerning these train operations, but the MTA isn’t there yet.
Today, Flegenheimer tracks down another operation quirk, this time concerning a privately-operated exit at the 5th Ave. station on 53rd St. The full story is here, and I’ll excerpt:
Beginning at 9 p.m. on weekdays and Saturdays — as several signs on the platforms can attest — the station’s Madison Avenue exits are closed. But an interior gate often remained open about an hour longer, laying the trap that led riders to the escalator, the turnstiles, the gate and, after a few moments of deliberation, the decision: Jump the turnstile to seek another exit? Call for help? Or, for those without unlimited-ride MetroCards, spend a second fare, not to enter the subway system, but to escape it?
First, the explanation. The top level of the station is owned by private companies, whose personnel control the street-level gates. On two recent nights, the gates were closed at or around 9 p.m. The gate on the platform is operated by Metropolitan Transportation Authority workers, who say their shift schedules usually summon them to the station around 9:45 or 10. “I don’t know why they make the schedule like this,” one worker, Daniel Martinez, said as he locked the gate last Thursday evening. He began his evening at the station at 53rd Street and Lexington Avenue at 9 p.m., he said, and needed to perform several errands there before walking toward Madison Avenue. “For those 30, 45 minutes,” Mr. Martinez said, “I’m saying to myself, ‘How many times have people gone up and come back down?’ ”
On that night, and another, 48 hours earlier, the answer was about 20. Some paused for minutes at the turnstiles, contemplating a moral calculus that, according to transit officials, appears to be unique to 53rd Street.Over the course of two weeknights, about half of the riders hurdled over or ducked under the turnstiles. Several cajoled fellow passengers, who had not yet left the subway system, to push the emergency gate open. And the rest swiped their MetroCards, though for some, like Ms. Lingley, the possession of an unlimited-ride card eased the pain.
The rest of the article concerns an examination into the ethics of turnstile-jumping. Even the MTA workers in this case urge riders trapped between a functioning turnstile and a locked exit to eschew another fare, but between the way the NYPD operates and the fact that many people using this station are tourists, the MTA has managed to capture some additional fares. Just jump.
Now, the MTA grew a bit defensive over this article last night, and Adam Lisberg stressed on Twitter last night that the problem had been addressed. But I wanted to know why it took a New York Times article to solve the issue. The reporting process for issues such as these isn’t transparent, and even with a streamlined website, it’s not immediately obvious how to report a problem.
I see this, though, as a problem that shouldn’t have arisen in the first place. When the MTA forges agreements with the companies that operate these station complexes, it should pay attention to work shift schedules and the reality of the situation. Somewhere along the way, the left hand of real estate stopped speaking with the right hand of worker operations, and as a result, some subway riders found a working fare control area with a locked exit on the other side. That’s nearly as bad as New Jersey Transit’s $100,000 fence.
When a water main broke in Manhattan on Friday, initial reports highlighted a quirk of the New York City subway’s station naming convention. The first stories spoke only of a problem at 23rd St., but for a few minutes, not a single news outlet named which 23rd St. station. With five subway stations all carrying the 23rd St. moniker arrayed along the street in Manhattan, it was a prime opportunity for confusion.
Across the city, similar situations exist as subway lines stop at major cross-streets and popular intersections, but by and large, station names are indicative of the streets they’re on. Need to get to Chelsea? Take the A, C or E to 14th St. Looking for Brooklyn Heights? Get thee to Clark St. While some cities — D.C. comes to mind — feature station names with neighborhoods, areas and tourists attractions all shoved into one giant sign, New York has gone for simplicity and geography.
Now, though, name creep has seemingly begun, and we can point to Ed Koch for that one. According to reports this morning, Rep. Carolyn Maloney and city politicians are leading an effort to convince the MTA to rename the 77th St. station in honor of the late former mayor. Maloney says 77th St. was Koch’s favorite station — perhaps due to the number of donors who lived in the area — and the City Council will take up legislation to call for a new name for the station.
I can’t imagine much will come of this even if the City Council passes such a symbolic resolution. It isn’t ultimately up to the City Council what subway stations will be named, and one MTA spokesperson said to me via Twitter, simply that the agency isn’t going to rename a subway station after anyone, living or dead, famous or not. It should forever remain 77th St. until we no longer call the cross-street 77th.
Outside of the supposed honor, there is also a cost. Station signs would have to be reprinted; maps would have to be updated; and the prerecorded announcements used in the rolling stock along the Lexington Ave. line would have to re-recorded. None of this is free.
This move, of course, isn’t the first time current politicians have proposed naming something after Koch. The span across the East River immortalized in song by Simon and Garfunkel is officially the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, but no one really uses that name. As The Wall Street Journal reported, most New Yorkers can’t be bothered with the change. “What bridge?” one Queens resident said. “The Queensboro Bridge? Because that’s the Queensboro Bridge. Maybe the 59th Street Bridge. I never heard it called the Ed Koch Bridge before.”
Meanwhile, a few months ago, the move to rename the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel after Gov. Hugh L. Carey drew derision as well. We don’t need to name our infrastructure after people, and we shouldn’t remove helpful indicators of location from station names. Ed Koch has a bridge; he doesn’t need a subway station as well.
By now, I’m sure many of you have seen the video from Dean Peterson that’s been making the rounds. The Brooklyn-based videographer took to his local subway station — 36th St. along 4th Ave. — and filmed an amusing two minutes of straphangers tripping up the stairs. This station, along with some others, has an uneven staircase that has long been a part of station lore. No one had bothered to fix it until today.
The video has been viewed now over 530,000 times, and apparently, someone at the MTA noted it as well for, as NBC New York reported, the staircase is now closed for repairs. Considering Transit’s track record with staircase repair work, I’d imagine this entrance will be out of commission for a few weeks as crews realign the steps, but that’s practically besides the point. Why did it take a viral video to gain some attention?
It seems that no one at Transit had realized the imperfection, and that’s somewhat reasonable. No one is measuring every step at every station. Furthermore, perhaps straphangers who tripped simply chalked it up to their own stumbles. But if one person noticed the same stair as a problem over and over again, I’m sure some others did as well. Shouldn’t we have a system in place that allows New Yorkers to report these problems to someone who will listen? I don’t think viral videos are the way to go to get every routine maintenance problem in the subway addressed.
In terms of gems from the City Council, here is another one, courtesy of The Daily News. Recently, while speaking with reporters, City Council member Robert Jackson told a tale involving his wife and an unstaffed subway entrance. Apparently, the MetroCard Machines at 181st St. weren’t working, and no station agents work at the entrance in question.
Instead of hoofing it to another entrance or seeking out a way to buy a fare, Jackson urged his wife to skip out on the $2.25. “I told her to go under,” Jackson said. “I would have gone under…Whoever goes to buy a MetroCard should be entitled to a free ride if the machines aren’t working, if there’s no token booth clerk there.”
For its part, the MTA was less than impressed with Jackson’s ethics. “Farebeating is a crime,” Adam Lisberg said to The News. “It’s wrong. It’s illegal, and it deprives the MTA of the money it needs to carry you on the subway.”
I want to pose this a different way: Do you ever consider a fare jump acceptable? Personally, I’m never without at least one and usually two MetroCards. I keep my unlimited on hand and have an emergency pay-per-ride back-up just in case. That way, I’m never faced with the possibility that I can’t board a bus or ride the subway. Furthermore, as every station complex has at least one staffed entrance, I also don’t think walking to that entrance with a person or working machines is too onerous. Apparently, though, politicians whose lack of support for the MTA has led to the dismissal of those station agents disagree.
When it comes to transit oversight, New York’s illustrious City Council is all bluster with little bite. The Mayor has the option to name appointees to the MTA Board, and New York City Transit operates under the auspicies of the MTA — a state agency. So when it comes to oversight, City Council members can haul MTA officials before them for a tongue-lashing, but they can’t actually do anything. On Wednesday, this impotence was in full display in all of its sheer absurdity.
This tale of woe begins on Wednesday morning with some truthful comments from MTA Chairman Joe Lhota or, alternatively, in the mid-1950s when the city punted on transit issues and funding. Council members, responsible only for statutory and contractually obligated parts of the MTA budget, receive myriad constituent complaints, but as Lhota noted to reporters during the monthly board member, they can’t really do anything about it. And if it’s one thing New York City politicians hate to hear, it’s how they can’t do something about what their voters consider to be a problem.
With trash in the news and New Yorkers complaining about the condition of their subway stations, Council Member Peter Koo told the MTA that he wanted to institute a letter grading system for subway stations based on cleanliness. Now, New Yorkers are quite familiar with letter grades. Even though the Department of Health’s restaurant inspection system doesn’t understand the subtlety of food preparation, the letter grades are everywhere. Some people won’t eat in restaurants with B’s or C’s; others figure that if the place is open, it passed an inspection.
Koo wants to bring that exact system to the subway, and his co-Council members love it. “Do you guys have a budget to clean the stations?” Koo asked “Or we haven’t delivered our message?”
James Vacca, the Transportation Committee chair who apparently cannot understand the differences between a restaurant and the subway, embraced the idea immediately. “I would like every station rated,” he said. “We rate the restaurants and every takeout place. Why can’t we rate stations on cleanliness, rats, water, garbage, graffiti?”
Why can’t we, indeed? Perhaps, it doesn’t make sense because food preparation and consumption are not the same as travel. Perhaps it doesn’t make sense because we’re beholden to one subway stop. We’re not going to walk a half a mile to find a slightly cleaner subway station. Perhaps it doesn’t make sense because what you see is what you get in the subway. I can see grime, trash and rats. I don’t need to be told that they exist. As one straphanger said to The Wall Street Journal: “They are relatively clean. Who needs a rating? If it has a ‘D’ grade, a failing grade, are you going to not stop there?” Other riders professed to care about service frequency above all else.
After the hearing, some transit watchdogs pretty much scoffed at the idea while the Straphangers issued a half-hearted call that “maybe the council should fund” such an idea. Maybe indeed. The MTA refused to issue much more than a collective sigh while William Henderson of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee shrugged it off. “I’m not sure it provides a whole lot of additional information that riders don’t already have by being there,” he said. “In an environment where resources are strained, I’m not sure that’s exactly the path to take.”
One City Council member who seemed to grasp the absurdity of it all offered up an actual use for such a grading system. While still requiring the MTA to foot half the bill for this misguided and useless idea, Domenic M. Recchia, head of the Finance Committee, suggested that such a system would allow council members to better determine if discretionary funds should go toward subway station cleanliness. Think of it as a halfway house toward an adopt-a-station program I’ve mentioned on and off over the years.
But let’s pause for a second and figure out what’s really going on here. Why would the Council even be in such a position to bloviate? It wants “accountability” from the agency on why it needs a fare hike next year — something the authority has provided in droves — and the MTA wants more funding from the city. As the latter won’t happen, the Council decided to do all it could do to mock the authority in public. Hence, letter grades for the subway system.
The City Council will never embrace taking responsibility for New York City Transit. It doesn’t want the financial or political headaches that come with such control. And so we are left with a situation where the Council will not provide proper oversight or the money the MTA needs to clean their obviously dirty stations. We just get bad — and silly — ideas.
An ex-con who once stole $10 million from the MTA and served jail time for the payroll scam was hired by an MTA contractor to again oversee payroll, this time on the East Side Access project. It’s an “only in New York, only involving the MTA” story uncovered this weekend by The Daily News, and it underscores the challenges an agency the size of the MTA faces in an industry with few checks and balances.
Greg Smith had the story:
Since November, Jimmy Roemer has helped manage the payroll at the MTA’s biggest construction site — the $7.3 billion East Side Access tunnel that will someday link the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal. He’s had prior experience managing payroll at another MTA work site — though perhaps not the kind of experience the MTA would want.
A decade ago, Roemer participated in a brazen conspiracy to steal $10 million from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s massive renovation of its headquarters in lower Manhattan. He spent some of the spoils on a waterfront lodge he named after the Frank Sinatra song “Summer Wind.”
As he pleaded guilty to six counts — including fraud, obstruction of justice and tax evasion — in 2003, he explained how managing the payroll allowed him to routinely inflate workers’ hours and bill for workers who did not exist. This is precisely the job he’s held for the last six months: determining how many workers are needed each day and signing off on time cards for Dragados-Judlau, which has $1.1 billion in MTA contracts at the East Side Access tunnel.
Following the revelation, every party pointed a finger elsewhere. The MTA blamed Dragados-Judlau. “He was hired by the contractor, and we don’t pry into their hiring methods,” authority spokesman Adam Lisber said to The News. “We have a very robust system for checking the fitness and responsibility for all of our contractors, and it is on them to do the work the way we expect. We don’t sit down with their payrolls and examine everybody on it.”
The contractor’s representative, meanwhile, had a different explanation for the grave oversight. “Honestly, it wasn’t that big of a deal to me at the time,” supervisor Sean Clevenstine said. “He told me he was convicted, he told me he did time, he told me he paid restitution. I never got into the particulars and the specifics because it was, to me, I was filling a union position with a union employee.”
Roemer, who helped funnel money to the Genovese crime family and still owes the MTA $200,000 in restitution, has been removed from his post and declined to comment to The News. The incident itself is a black eye for Dragados-Judlau and reflects poorly on the MTA too. That said, the authority isn’t exactly in a position to run background checks on every single employee hired by its various contractors. Considering the number of contractor employees working on MTA projects, such a process would be exceedingly cost and time-consuming.
Still, something broke down somewhere. Dragados-Judlau seems to have only the barest of checks in place, and they seemingly rely on the honor system. Clevenstine’s comment concerning a union man filling a union position speaks volumes on the state of play (although Roemer will soon be a former member of Local 14, according to recent reports). If the contractors can find a few good union men for those union positions, they have no need to go that extra mile.
The MTA, meanwhile, has no checks in place. They could provide contractors with a list of people convicted of a fraud similar to Roemer’s. Considering convictions for these crimes are relatively uncommon, such a list should be easy to put together, and it would behoove the authority to figure out a way to achieve this end. After all, this revelation looks bad, especially on a project that’s already delayed and over budget for a whole mess of reasons.
Ultimately, this news strikes me more as business as usual than any such great revelation. It’s a crooked business with only a handful of powerful contractors bidding on each MTA project, and they need to come in under their competitive bids. The process failed here as it has so many other times in the past.