The 181st St. ceiling on August 16, 2009. (Photo via MTA Inspector General)
The August 2009 ceiling collapse at the 181st St. station should have been avoided, says a new report. Barry Kluger, the MTA Inspector General, issued a detailed examination of the agency’s station inspection policies and procedures leading up the accident. He concluded that the authority had known about the faulty ceiling conditions and the possibility of collapse for ten years but had failed to remedy the problem.
“NYC Transit managers had learned in 1999 that a portion of the ceiling at 181st Street was at risk of collapse,” said the report, available here as a PDF. “However, it did not begin a comprehensive assessment of the ceiling’s condition until June 2009, just two months before the ceiling fell.”
The MTA’s inspection negligence, according to Kluger, was not limited to just the solitary station along the 1 line. Accidents at Bowling Green and 18th Ave. could have been prevented too. “Each of the three incidents reviewed during this audit indicates weaknesses in the adequacy of NYC Transit’s station inspections. These shortcomings increase the risk of customer injuries and service disruptions. The shortcomings also increase the probability that scarce capital and maintenance dollars will be spent addressing emergency situations,” he said. “Facing extraordinary pressure to pare spending, NYC Transit simply cannot afford the additional costs associated with emergencies that are clearly preventable.”
Unsurprisingly, the problem seems to be one of bureaucracy. According to Kluger, workers in Transit’s Capital Program Management division identified the structural issues in the 181st St. ceiling during a station rehab in 1999 and were responsible for identifying permanent solutions. CPM failed to do more than install a temporary shield, and when the Department of Subway’s Maintenance of Ways division took over inspections, it failed to question CPM’s work.
To compound the matters, MOW inspections are well below standard. According to Kluger, these inspections would take place from the station platforms. “From these vantage points,” he said, “no inspection could have adequately detected the extent of the ceiling’s distress at the 181st Street Station.”
Amongst the lack of communication across departments, the poor standards for inspection and the fact that other components aren’t inspected regularly, it’s a wonder we haven’t seen worse accidents underground. To remedy these oversights, the MTAIG has recommended the obvious: better communication and inspection standards. As the MTA begins to spend the $16 million appropriated for repairs at 181st St., Transit officials said they have already begun to implement these recommendations and to upgrade their inspection protocols. Better late than never.