Home New York City Transit A call for inspections with 181st closed indefinitely

A call for inspections with 181st closed indefinitely

by Benjamin Kabak

Following the news yesterday morning that 181st St. was falling down, New Yorkers scrambled to adjust their commutes. As the day wore on, the prospects for a fast repair seemed bleak, and a few minutes ago, Transit spokesman Paul Fleuranges sent an e-mail update on the state of the station.

According to Fleuranges, 1 train service through 181st St. will “remain suspended until further notice.” Transit has brought on a contractor to repair the station, but this work will take several days to complete. Transit will not restore service “until it is safe to operate trains through the area.”

For now, riders needing to get through or past the 181st St. station will have little luck along that IRT line. The 1 train is running in two sections — between South Ferry and 168th St. and between Dyckman St. and 242nd St. in the Bronx. Shuttle buses are running between Dyckman and 168th Sts. Meanwhile, this evening, Transit announced that for as long as service is interrupted, the M3 along St. Nicholas Ave. will be free for customers traveling north at 168th St., any direction at 181st St. and south at 191st St. The A train remains an option.

In other words, it’s a mess up there, and I’m glad I’m no longer relying on the 1 train as I did when I traveled between Riverdale and the Upper West Side during high school. Meanwhile, the fallout from this incident — a collapsed tunnel ceiling at one of the system’s deepest stations — could stretch on for days and encompass more than just an inconvenient commute.

Writing in amNew York today, Heather Haddon reports on a potentially problematic development for the MTA. According to Washington Heights community groups, the MTA had advanced notice of problems at the station. Writes Haddon:

Transit officials failed to heed to three years of complaints over water leaks and crumbling tiles at the 181 Street No. 1 subway station, where a ceiling collapse covered 35 feet of track with debris and service has been knocked out for up to a week. “We’re not surprised. We’ve been hearing complaints about this from residents for years,” said Manny Velazquez, chair of Community Board 12 in Washington Heights.

According to Velazquez, the MTA had acknowledged the community board’s concerns but did not take action. The agency did not respond directly to the board’s allegations Monday. The MTA said they are still investigating the cause of the Sunday evening collapse of the station’s landmarked brick ceiling and archway, but local officials believe water seepage contributed to the problem.

Water is a chronic complaint at many of the deep stations on the No. 1 line, and residents sometimes use umbrellas to keep dry, Velazquez said.

It’s tough to understate the impact of this news. The 1 train services around 600,000 passengers per week day with 26,500 of them using the 181st St. station. If the MTA had a prior warning that something may be wrong, we’re in for an investigation.

And in fact, an investigation is just what Andrew Albert, a non-voting member of the MTA Board, has requested. Albert noted that the MTA generally does not replace station roofs during overhauls, but perhaps, the agency should. “This certainly calls for inspecting all of the tunnels to ensure their integrity,” Albert said to Haddon.

As Transit struggled to bring a station on the list of the National Register of Historic Places back online and continues to look into the cause of collapse, this story and its ramifications on the rest of the system is only just beginning to unfold.

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Jason August 18, 2009 - 7:47 am

Curious as to whether the MTA will repair the station to its original beauty or just slap some band-aids on it and call it a day.

ginsbu August 18, 2009 - 11:51 am

As the station is on the National Register of Historic Places, I think the MTA is required to restore it completely, although they probably will not be required to do so immediately.

Scott E August 18, 2009 - 8:19 am

Prior warning? Seriously, if they took investigative action for every report of a station with “water leaks and crumbling tires”, two-thirds of the stations would be closed, and the other one-third would be under construction.

Benjamin Kabak August 18, 2009 - 11:53 am

I don’t think I get your logic, Scott. Now that a 20-30 foot section of the ceiling has collapsed, shouldn’t it be more important for the MTA to respond to these local complaints? The excuse — we shouldn’t look into it because every station looks like that — isn’t a good one. Rather, the MTA should do some thorough structural examinations into the state of their stations.

Scott E August 18, 2009 - 1:13 pm

I guess some cynicism and sarcasm got lost in my poorly-worded comment. To run out and check every public complaint would be highly inefficient — they’d end up hitting every station, in haphazard sequence — multiple times. All stations leak, and they all have tiles falling off the walls. I’m sure they get hundreds of these complaints and they get dismissed as quickly as they come in.

Rather, the agency should have a systemic process and maintenance schedule to assess its own infrastructure and, at a minimum, make repairs to keep it safe. The fact that one station failed shouldn’t change this.

The problem is that funding for routine maintenance is hard to come by. It’s tough to convince someone to spend millions of dollars on a project that, in the end, will offer no better services than it did before.

Jason B August 18, 2009 - 8:07 pm

And funding was clearly the problem here. The MTA actually just got approved for funding last Friday to get the station roof fixed after proposing it in 2008. According to the MTA press release issued today they had been quite aware of the problem and had modified the 2005-2009 Capital program to include repairs, even installing protection over the pedestrian bridge.

I understand that the agency should be more on top of its own system, but we are also talking about a system quite old and quite large. In nearly every aspect of infrastructure (any type) there will reach a point where routine maintenance is no longer enough, and replacement/overhaul is needed, and while replacement is needed in a lot of places now, they money just isn’t there to address it at once. Hopefully more focus on the urgency of bringing the entire system to a state of good repair will result from this.

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Tony August 18, 2009 - 2:38 pm

A key part of this story is that the MTA has hired a contractor to fix the damage. This means that it is most likely not going to be done correctly. The MTA takes the lowest bidder on the contracts and then those companies sub out the work to contractors that do it for even less with poor safety procedures and low paid not as skilled workers.

Marc Shepherd August 18, 2009 - 2:56 pm

It is surely a gross exaggeration to suggest that work done by contractors is never done correctly.

And if ever there were a job that ought to be handled this way, it’s this one. I mean, it’s not as if station ceilings collapse every day. No agency could be expected to have permanent staff capable of repairing this type of problem.

Tony August 18, 2009 - 3:33 pm

The TA does have extremely qualified workers to handle all work that needs to be done. There is a infastructure department with skilled tradesman. The main reason the TA opts for the contractors is because they aren’t required by the TA to follow the same safety procedures that the in-house employees must follow. By not having to follow these safety protocols you can work faster with less overall employees. When the contractors get injured they do everything possible to hide the injury and not report it. I witness a contractor at chambers street fall off a ladder and crack his head open on the tracks. His foreman demanded the other workers to lift him off of the tracks and carry him to the street where he will take him to a doctor. This man needed an ambulance and should not have been moved.

Scott E August 18, 2009 - 4:03 pm

It makes sense that they have in-house employees to handle the routine stuff, even “routine emergencies” (track work, signal failures, etc). But I seriously doubt that they have a crew on standby that reinforces concrete and builds ceilings when they collapse. It happens so rarely that it wouldn’t make sense. And I doubt the contractor, in this case, was a low-bidder; there simply wasn’t enough time to carry-out the bid process. I’m sure they just went to one of their preferred contractors, explained the problem, and quickly negotiated payment terms. Perhaps they already had them on a “retainer” in the event of something like this.

Tony, I don’t doubt what you said you saw at Chambers Street happened, but I seriously doubt it was for the reasons stated.

Tony August 18, 2009 - 4:14 pm

I spoke to the foreman myself. He said that they are not allowed to have accidents especially ones with an injury. An employee ended up reporting the accident to his supervisor and that contractors crew wasn’t seen on that job again. They had been there every weekend for weeks at that point.

Jerrold August 18, 2009 - 3:28 pm


Benjamin Kabak August 18, 2009 - 3:32 pm

Jerrold: There’s no sign of a comment from you. I was having server problems a few hours ago. Perhaps if you resubmit it, it will show up this time. It was nothing targeted to you and nothing personal. I can assure you of that.

Jerrold August 18, 2009 - 3:39 pm

My comment was:

For a change I totally agree with Bloomberg about something.
He said something today about how it was lucky that nobody was killed when that ceiling collapsed.

Alon Levy August 18, 2009 - 5:36 pm

A nitpick: the 181st Street station has 11,000 boardings per weekday, not 25,000 (link). Total ridership on the 1 north of 168th is 58,000 per weekday.

But even if you use the 1 strictly south of 181st, as most people do, the accident means longer headways. I saw a sign at 110th saying that people should expect to wait 8-12 minutes longer.


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