Home MTA Absurdity The MTA spent $1 billion, and all they got were some broken elevators

The MTA spent $1 billion, and all they got were some broken elevators

by Benjamin Kabak

One of my least favorite subway trips begins (or ends, really) at Clark St. in Brooklyn. Nestled just past the New York harbor in Brooklyn Heights, the Clark St. station is so far underground that one must use an elevator to reach the platform. While there is an 80-foot staircase in case of emergencies, the elevators — the creaky, lumbering, claustrophobic elevators — are the MTA’s recommended means of getting to and from the 100-foot deep platform.

To residents of the area, the terrible conditions of this elevator are not a secret. Brooklyn Enthusiastic bemoaned the sorry state of the elevators over a year ago. The MTA’s problems with auxiliary equipment stretch well beyond one elevator in Brooklyn. As I’ve detailed over the last few weeks, the MTA’s escalators have garnered a lot of attention lately, and the Straphangers Campaign called upon the MTA to fix the system’s numerous broken escalators.

But today, the dam broke. In a stunning indictment of the MTA’s non-rolling stock, non-track-related equipment, William Neuman in The Times explores the extent of the subway elevator and escalator problems. After $1 billion in investment since the mid-1990s and $1 billion more planned for the next 10 years, the MTA’s elevators are rife with problems. Neuman notes some of the issues:

¶One of every six elevators and escalators in the subway system was out of service for more than a month last year, according to the transit agency’s data.

¶The 169 escalators in the subway averaged 68 breakdowns or repair calls each last year, with the worst machines logging more than double that number. And some of the least reliable escalators in the system are also some of the newest, accumulating thousands of hours out of service for what officials described as a litany of mechanical flaws.

¶Two-thirds of the subway elevators — many of which travel all of 15 feet — had at least one breakdown last year in which passengers were trapped inside.

“This organization is very, very good at subway car maintenance; it’s very good at bus maintenance. But maintaining auxiliary equipment it hasn’t done as well,” NYC Transit President Howard Roberts said to The Times. “I think that we are in the process of trying to create the same competence in elevator and escalator maintenance that we have in buses and subway cars.”

The problems, however, go well beyond simple breakdowns. It is, according to Neuman’s sources, a problem of institutional inadequacies.

The more than 200 mechanics who maintain and repair the subway’s elevators and escalators receive as little as four weeks of training, a fraction of what they would receive in other transit systems or in private industry. And transit officials concede the system is so inefficient that many elevator and escalator mechanics spend barely half of their shifts actually working on troubled machines.

Managers often rush balky elevators and escalators back into service without identifying the underlying causes of mechanical problems, leading to more breakdowns.

Many problems occur because of basic design flaws or mistakes made during the construction of the machines, when contractors worked with little or no oversight. Those conditions left many of the machines virtually broken from the outset.

“They don’t have enough competent people with the proper training,” said Michele O’Toole, the president of J. Martin Associates, which the transit agency hired in 2006 to evaluate its elevator operations. “It all reflects back to qualifications, training, capabilities.”

Transit officials offered the typical excuses: The subway system is too large with elevators at disparate corners of the city; the 24-hour-a-day nature makes it impossible to police public elevators-cum-restrooms; and so on.

The rest of Neuman’s piece is anecdotal. He examines numerous elevators and escalator in various stages of decline. We have elevators at West 4th Street that don’t fit the space; escalators that fall apart when people step on them and start up again suddenly. We see inadequate training and subpar emergency response times.

In the end, for those straphangers long used to relying on and avoiding the MTA’s elevators, these findings come as no surprise. For others, Neuman’s stellar piece will be a shocking reminder that the MTA can run subway cars but not a subway system too well. Hopefully, it will begin the process of change so badly needed as the MTA struggles to maintain its auxiliary equipment underground.

Photo by flickr user fmsparis.

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ScottE May 19, 2008 - 4:13 pm

So much for the theory that “broken escalators are just stairs”. My wife took the long escalator at Grand Central down to the 7 line while pregnant, and later while carrying my newborn son. I could only imagine what might have happened if she encountered the same escalator malfunctions that the women at Sutphin-Archer and Bowling Greene (pages 3-5 of the article) had to contend with.

Maintenance always gets neglected. People would rather see something bright and shiny and new (the three big MTA projects that we always here about), even at the expense of deferred maintenace of the existing system

Marc Shepherd May 19, 2008 - 6:09 pm

Deep stations like Clark Street have more than one elevator, because they were designed that way from the start. The elevators may be creaky, but there’s nearly always at least one working.

The more severe problem is where stations have been retrofitted for ADA access, for instance at W. 4th Street. In such cases, there’s no redundancy. There’s just one elevator to the mezzanine, and just one elevator to each platform. If any of them are out of order, the station is effectively no longer ADA-accessible.

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