Just over one month ago, the ceiling at 181st St. on the West Side IRT came crashing down and with it arose cries of a subpar station maintenance program. This week, New York City’s Comptroller William Thompson issued a damning report highly critical of the way New York City Transit goes about maintaining a database of stations in need of repairs and fixing those repairs.

“We recently averted tragedy when a subway ceiling collapsed onto tracks in Upper Manhattan. That should have signaled not just the need – but the urgency – to repair hazardous conditions,” Thompson said in a statement. “Instead, it’s as if New York City Transit is looking the other way. New Yorkers deserve better.”

The audit — available here as a PDF — paints a rather bleak picture of the current state of repair underground. Thompson and his office began investigating the MTA last year and have come to a rather stark conclusion. “New York City Transit is failing to repair reported defective and dangerous conditions – holes in station ceilings and platforms, corroded metal, loose or warped rubbing boards and broken steps – in commuter areas at subway stations across the city,” the Comptroller’s press release read.

The report features numerous stories such as the one about these stairs:

The Comptroller’s Office encountered this decrepit entrance at 33rd St. on the East Side IRT on November 25. On December 22, someone placed a service call, but on February 9, the steps still appeared in this state of disrepair. At other stations, damaged platform ceiling go unreported, and loose electrical wirings at 116th St. on the A went unrepaired for at least three months.

Beyond these reported and ignored problems, Thompson’s office found that the MTA has been closing out open tickets without making actual repairs. A handrail at 71st St. on the D/M in Brooklyn was reported broken on June 2, 2008, and while the trouble-call was filed as complete, six months later, the handrail was still loose. Stories such as these are pervasive at stations throughout the system.

In fact, auditors found problems with 399 of 426 sample trouble-calls, and the remaining 26 were at locations that were unidentifiable. According to to Thompson, 15 percent of calls were not repaired despite being filed 60 days prior to inspection. Two-thirds of these calls were closed out without any actual repair work being done.

The Comptroller’s Office also urged the MTA to institute a series of inspection measures:

  • Ensure that station inspections are appropriately performed by station supervisors and that all observed defects are reported to maintenance shops;
  • Establish a minimum requirement for frequency of station inspections and include this requirement in the Station Supervisor Training Program Manual and other operating procedures;
  • Ensure that required inspection and frequency reports are used to evidence inspections and establish record maintenance requirements for such reports;
  • Establish minimum requirements for supervisors to randomly review the work performed by maintenance personnel and to report on these observations. These reviews should be used as part of employee evaluations; and,
  • Consult the Information Technology-Information Systems (IT-IS) department within the agency to discuss the weaknesses and needs of the MSU in tracking trouble-calls.

In response, Transit noted that it is in the process of instituting many of these suggestions. “Several of the recommendations made in the Comptroller’s Office audit report on MTA New York City Transit’s efforts to maintain and repair subway stations are being followed, while some, including those requiring the use of web-based technology, are under review for future incorporation,” the agency said in a statement.

“Improvements,” the statement continued, “are currently underway in the areas of the procedures governing station inspections and the frequency of these inspections, while supervisors receive additional training in the identification of station defects. This includes the continuation of a two-day training refresher that helps maintain the supervisor’s proficiency in this area.”

While the Line Manager program will streamline the repair process and subsequent oversight, the MTA is going to start compartmentalizing station rehabilitation plans in order to address problem spots at stations not up for a complete overhaul. Still, as the MTA struggles to reach its state of good repair and as last month’s station collapse is still fresh in our minds, Thompson’s report comes as a rather sober reminder that our system is fragile. We need better investment in transit, and we need it now.

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  • TWU members protest MTA appeal · While the MTA is awaiting its day in court as it tries to appeal a binding arbitration ruling in favor of the TWU members, the union’s rank-and-file have taken to the streets in protest. According to Pete Donohue, more than 350 union members picketed outside of MTA headquarters this morning in advance of the monthly board meeting. According to union sources, their main targets were Mayor Bloomberg’s four board appointees. TWU officials believe the Mayor has urged the MTA to appeal the decision to secure an 11 percent raise for union workers over the next three years. “He’s the mayor of the city. He always has a say,” Curtis Tate, Local 100’s acting president, said. While workers will not shut down the system any time soon, labor relations between the MTA and its union are icy at best right now. · (1)

While the MTA and Upper East Side residents are at odds over Second. Ave relocation measures, the authority has a cash reserve in place to mitigate moving expenses. According to a report in the Daily News, the MTA has set aside $10 million to compensate residents for the inconvenience and headaches of a move.

Pete Donohue has more:

The MTA has set aside $10 million to move and compensate residents forced out of 60 apartments being cleared to make way for Second Ave. subway construction. The six-figure package averages out to about $160,000 for each upper East Side apartment in four buildings subject to eminent domain proceedings. Payments are likely to vary widely, according to a Metropolitan Transportation Authority description.

In one possible scenario, a tenant in a market-rate apartment would get $21,000 to cover higher rents over a 42-month period. In another, a tenant in a rent-regulated apartment would get $153,000 based on a more complicated formula including age, income and higher rent over a 36-year period.

“On paper, I think it’s fair,” area Councilwoman Jessica Lappin said of the plan, noting some who don’t mind moving out of the area stand to receive “a nice payout.”

Because the figure was set before the housing bubble burst, the MTA does not expect to need the full $10 million. The money, however, should meet the federal standards for “comparable housing” and “additional assistance.”

While this fund shows that the MTA is concerned with the residents in the area and are trying to meet the eminent domain requirements, it comes as a stark contrast to the ways in which Second Ave. businesses have been marginalized. When I last wrote about the economic impact of the Second Ave. construction, a reader challenged me on my defense of residents and my disregard for businesses. After all, businesses have a right to their just compensation too, and while eminent domain is a federal requirement, the businesses are economically vital for the area.

So should the MTA or city be compensating impacted businesses as they are residents? They aren’t federally required to, but the current vitality of the Upper East Side may depend on it as construction stretches through the next decade. In light of the MTA’s economic position, a cash outlay seems unlikely, and maybe business pains are the cost of constructing a new subway line. But while we will all benefit from a new subway line, we should remember how residents and business owners struggle to cope with it.

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Three days ago, the MTA started to eliminate station agents at numerous entrances throughout the system. In the buildup to this cost-saving measure, the agency has faced criticism on numerous fronts from those who feel that eliminating the agents will decrease safety underground. While I believe the agents create the illusion of safety and don’t actually make the stations safer, it is hard to dispute the deterrent power of an official-looking station worker.

As the agents head out, the MTA suffered something of a public relations setback. No one really explained how the MTA was going to maintain safety in the subway. Today, the Daily News has word of a plan unveiled tomorrow that should quell some fears. As the MTA rehabilitates stations, it will include platform intercoms every 200 feet. These intercoms will will allow customers to report problems nearly at the source.

This is a great safety measure and one that should have been announced as the agents were being eliminated. Why we are hearing about this only know, I do not know. Pete Donohue has more:

Intercoms linking platforms and token booths are now few and far between – but NYC Transit is including them in all future station rehabilitation projects, a spokesman said. Among the first to see the communications upgrade will be riders at five Brighton line stations in Brooklyn.

Workers will install 61 of the devices, one every 200 feet, the spokesman said. The series of station overhauls began in October and will be completed in December 2011.

“The bottom line is it will be a lot easier for riders in an emergency to reach help, and that’s a good thing,” Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign said. “It doesn’t completely make up for the smaller human presence in stations, but it helps.”

I don’t think Russianoff gets it right. The intercoms won’t act as deterrents as people would, but the technological should make riders safety. The intercoms could connect directly to outside help, and while the initial plans are to connect them to the token booth or the NYC Transit control center, if customers can summon emergency response teams from the platform without having to track down a station agent, straphangers would be far better off than they are now.

The MTA deserves applause for this initiative, and they should earn praise from the board tomorrow when the full plan is unveiled. The rollout may be slow and steady, but the intercoms represent a true measure of subway security.

Categories : Subway Security
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  • Contactless payment system to expand to buses · While Jay Walder, the incoming MTA head, wants to replace the MetroCard with a contactless fare card similar to London’s Oyster Card or DC’s SmartCard, New York City Transit is forging ahead with its current credit card-based smartcard system. In 2006, MasterCard and the MTA teamed up to bring a “Tap & Go” fare payment system to certain stops along the Lexington Ave. line, and now the agency plans to expand the program to eight popular city bus lines. Buses along the M14, M23, M79, M86, M101, M102, M103 and BxM7 routes will be equipped with SmartCard technology that can handle any major credit card equipped with a swipe-less RFID chip. The death knell for the MetroCard rings louder. · (8)
  • State Senate Secretary caught in new MTA transparency measures · Talk about ironic. The Daily News on Friday broke a story of corruption in the State Senate. (Shocking, I know.) Senate Secretary Angelo Aponte tried to convince the MTA to allow Martin Scorcese and the HBO to film in the subway after receiving a $25,000 donation for Senate Democrats from Time Warner, HBO’s parent company. And how did Pete Donohue get wind of this story? As Mobilizing the Region highlighted yesterday, the phone call between Aponte and New York City Transit was mentioned in part of the report from the MTA’s new Office of Legislative and Community Input, a body established at the command of the State Senate to increase accountability and transparency on behalf of the trainst agency. As Steven Higashide wrote at MTR, “transparency goes both ways.” Indeed. · (3)

Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic explored rerouting the Second Ave. Subway last November.

When the MTA initially proposed the Second Ave. Subway, the agency had grand plans for a relatively speedy construction. Set to begin in 2007, construction on all four phases of the Second Ave. line would wrap up by 2020. As the saying goes, “The best laid subway lines…”

Now, here we sit in 2009, and no one can agree on the completion date for Phase I. The Feds say 2018; the MTA maintains 2017. No matter that date, though, no one is talking about Phases II, III and IV, and in its Twenty Year Capital Needs Assessment, the MTA offered up nothing too concrete. In fact, the rest of the SAS generated just one line in a 97-page PDF document: “Phases II – IV will generate similar benefits and must be advanced in future.”

So with plenty of years — or decades — until the Second Ave. Subway extends south of 63rd St. along the Second Ave., New Yorkers have plenty of time to lobby the MTA for changes to the proposed route. Earlier this week, Chris Z. proposed the following to me in an e-mail:

I’ve read quite a bit about the Second Avenue Subway and its planned route and stations. One thing I’ve never heard discussed is why it won’t provide better access to the Lower East Side. While residents of York Avenue will finally get the subway line they deserve, what about the residents of Avenues B, C, and D? Why is yet another transit line refusing to acknowledge the significant eastern bulge of lower Manhattan?

The Second Avenue Elevated provided a model: as it approached downtown, it turned east at 23rd Street and then followed First Avenue through what is now the East Village. Even this deviation of a single avenue-block, applied to the Second Avenue Subway, would give considerable benefit to those in Alphabet City. The sacrifice would be minimal: those that live between Broadway and Second Avenue would continue to be extremely well-served by the Broadway and Lexington Lines. (Indeed, the relative lack of north-south bus lines in this corridor is proof that they are already spoiled for choice.) It would also do no harm to the planned connections to the Canarsie Line or the Sixth Avenue Line (the Second Avenue station stretches to First Avenue, with an existing mezzanine).

I realize that this ship has long since sailed (nevermind that it will be decades before any track is laid south of 14th Street). I’m just curious if you knew if this (old) idea was ever discussed and ruled out because of logistical, political, or budgetary concerns.

Chris’ proposal is tame compared to others I’ve seen. Many New Yorkers would — as The Transport Politic proposed — swing the subway east and run it under Ave. B or C through the Lower East Side. Based on the research I’ve conducted, a confluence of circumstances make an eastward swing of the Second Ave. Subway nearly impossible.

The first issue is one of the reality above the ground. Second Ave. is a six-lane road and so is First Ave. Further east though, the avenues narrow as Aves. A, B and C are all four lanes. It would be a near impossibility to run a two-track subway line underneath well-developed four-lane avenues.

Furthermore, because the area surrounding Alphabet City and the East Village/Lower East Side are so densely developed, a loop east would have to make a series of very sharp turns on 14th St. — below the L train — and again on whichever avenue were to serve as the north/south route. The engineering would be a nightmare, and the train speeds around these curves would resemble the crawl of the R south of Canal St. Anything north of 14th St. would run into Peter Cooper Village and Stuy Town.

Meanwhile, the economics of an Alphabet City loop do not make sense. As commenter Mr. Transit noted at TTP, the one of the main goals for the SAS is to improve travel time to Lower Manhattan and relieve overcrowding. A spur would negate this goal. It would also be quite costly to tack on the extra track miles relative to the number of additional riders gained.

Finally, an environmental aspect comes into play. According to the Coastal Zone map the MTA provided in its Final Environmental Impact Statement (PDF), most of the SAS skirts Manhattan’s coastal zone. By swinging the route east, the subway tunnel would hit some environmentally sensitive areas and some areas of the island that once were water. As Michael Tenenbaum noted also at TTP, a subway that far east would involving cutting into “bedrock with significant dewatering as was done for the remediation of the Northern Manhattan stations in the mid 1970s.”

We like to dream about a Second Ave. Subway that swings through Alphabet City and better serves the Lower East Side. But due to logistics, costs and environmental factors, the Second Ave. Subway — if and when Phases II, III and IV arrive — will be but a straight line from north to south leaving Alphabet City well off the subway grid.

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  • Seatless train experiment stalling out · To combat overcrowding during peak travel times, the MTA proposed last August to remove seats from some trains during rush hour. At the time, it appeared as though the MTA would unveil a trial train car by early 2009. As with all good MTA projects though, this one has hit a speed bump, and now the agency is targeting the end of the year for its test run.

    According to Tom Namako, the MTA ran into some troubles with Kawasaki, the train car maker. The agency first hoped to install flip-bench capabilities to existing train cars in-house but ran into some troubles. When Transit asked Kawaski for foldable benches, the manufacturer refused, noting that the sample order — just four cars — was too small for them to spend time engineering this change. And so the MTA is now returning to an in-house solution that will be implemented when new train cars arrive.

    Unfortunately, since Kawaski would not adjust old cars, the line that most need this innovation — the East Side IRT — will miss out. Instead, according to Namako, the new R160s will serve as the trial subways. These cars are currently in place along the E, F, J, L, M, N, Q, W and Z lines. The F and Q suffer from overcrowding the most and could serve as decent test lines for an innovative project a few months too late. · (13)

StationAgent When I exited from the IND train at 40th and 6th Ave. on Friday afternoon, the sign shown at right greeted me. It was hanging on the former token booth located at the back entrance to this well-traveled station. While the 40th St. entrance is used mainly by people on the way to work, it is at the southwest corner of Bryant Park, and more than a few lost souls traverse its turnstiles.

Yesterday, though, as part of the MTA’s cost-cutting measures, the Station Customer Assistant assigned to this booth is no longer there. Straphangers can still enter at this southern end of the station with a MetroCard, and the MetroCard Vending Machines will still dispense cards (or eat your money). Those in need of help, however, will have to venture up to 42nd St. and 6th for a 24-hour station agent.

Throughout the city, I saw signs such as that one this weekend. At the 1st Ave. entrance to the F/V stop at 2nd Ave., a sign warned customers at 1 a.m. on Sunday morning about the lack of a station agent. Not every station enjoyed community support and outrage over these cuts as the F/G stop at Carroll St. (For a full list of the 86 station booths now without an agent, check out Comptroller Thompson’s search tool.)

With these cuts came a new round of articles from people on the street proclaiming the end of subway safety as we know it. Jeff Wilkins from the Daily News tracked down a few scared people. “I’m concerned for my safety,” Lunie Menard, a daily user of the Newkirk Ave. station, said. “If I’m down there by myself and someone’s working, at least I know there’s two of us. There’s safety in numbers. We need more people down there, not less.”

Bryan Walker expressed similar concerns at the A/C Utica Ave. stop in Bed-Stuy. “So I’ll have to phone someone at the other end of the station to let them know I’m being mugged,” he said. “That makes no sense.”

Walker’s and Menard’s statements hit upon the psychological aspects of the station agents. Generally, these agents are helpful when they can assist customers with MetroCard problems, stroller and wheelchair issues or directions. When crime comes into play, the agents aren’t required to assist and have made headlines in the past for doing nothing when straphangers are in trouble.

As news of the cuts has built over the last year, I’ve explored the ways in which the mere presence of the agents could act as a deterrent. For its part, the MTA has these safety concerns weren’t part of their financial equation. “Safety isn’t even a consideration,” Charles Seaton, and NYC Transit spokesperson, said. “Crime is down at stations across the city. The NYPD is doing a good job of patrolling them.”

For better or worse, we’ll find out who’s right. Crime might be down because the MTA placed eyes and ears in the stations. While these agents weren’t able to stop a crime in progress, the fact that they were there could have deterred numerous perps. With the MTA’s station agent cuts underway, if crime increases, we’ll know why.

Categories : Subway Security
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