Home Capital Program 2010-2014 The effects of putting lipstick on a pig

The effects of putting lipstick on a pig

by Benjamin Kabak

An unidentified subway station's ceiling does little to restore confidence in the system. (Photo by flickr user morganglines)

Outside of the ceiling at the now-shuttered City Hall station which is actually a work of art, the ceilings of many New York City subway stations are works of art in the sarcastically metaphorical sense. With chipped paint peeling off the roofs and water stains cascading down from hidden orifices, the MTA’s ceilings do not inspire confidence in the system. If the authority can’t keep a fresh coat of paint on its stations, what exactly does that say about the way it maintains its system?

Now, over the years, I’ve tackled the MTA’s paint job problems. In 2007, the MTA had plans to paint 200 stations in five years, but that plan was delayed because the authority couldn’t figure out how to decide which stations would go first. By 2008, these plans had ballooned into some comical scheme in which the MTA would paint just 12 stations a year, and it would take 39 years to outfit all 468 stations with new paint. The delay, the authority said, came about because of lead abatement problems, but the whole thing seemed to be a microcosm for MTA mismanagement.

Flashfoward to today. We’re now a year into the MTA’s new component-based approach to subway repair, and the paint is still suffering. In his column yesterday, Daily News transit beat writer Pete Donohue tackled the saga of the ceilings. The MTA has a ceiling problem. He revisited the collapse in 2009 of the arched roof at 181st St. and notes that the ceilings at 168th St. have seen bits of plaster crumble onto the tracks.

He details the ways in which stations aren’t repaired and how the system is physically decaying today as trackbeds are replaced, repaired and better maintained than the physical stations:

A major collapse may not be likely at 168th St., but signs that it has been decaying for decades abound: missing wall tiles, crumbling concrete, nauseating stains caused by leaks dating back to the 10-cent token. Tin, cone-shaped public address speakers – attached to exposed metal pipes above the platform – seem like relics from a WWII bunker.

One ceiling leak is dealt with in a manner worthy of a Rube Goldberg award: A metal tray, suspended just below the ceiling, captures the water, which then flows down a pipe to another tray, then through another pipe that disappears into the ground near the rails.

The problem is one of priorities and funding. The MTA must first invest its capital money into its track and signal system to make sure its trains are running smoothly and on schedule. No one wants to revisit the 1970s when track fires were a daily occurrence, and trains ran without electricity. The number one priority is and must be the parts of the system involved in actual transportation.

But as the MTA invests heavily in its rolling stock and track, it doesn’t have the money or resources to devote to its stations. It can upgrade and rehab only a few stations every year, and those that miss the cut fall further and further into disrepair. The Chambers St. stop on the BMT Nassau St. line look as though it hasn’t gotten an upgrade since 1967 when the Chrystie Street work changed the station configuration, and it probably has indeed been that long. The renovated Times Square station might look better than it did, but even its paint work is showing the signs of age. West Fourth St. is a disaster unto itself.

As Donohue writes, the authority’s component-based repair system is the right way to tackle a seeming monstrous task. Something as simple as a cosmetic upgrade at a station — brighter lightbulbs, a repaired staircase, a cleaner floor, fresh paint — will make the system more welcoming and more pleasant for its riders. People won’t be disgusted by their stations and might think of transit as something better than a hassle every morning. “Start with the roof, fellas,” Donohue says to the MTA, and why not? After all, most system roofs certainly need it. Look up at your own risk.

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pete January 11, 2011 - 8:08 am

If “lead abatement” is the problem with repaint stations, can someone explain how, many square feet of ancient peeling paint raining down onto the platform floor isn’t illegal?

Al D January 11, 2011 - 8:58 am

“The number one priority is and must be the parts of the system involved in actual transportation.”

I completely understand what you’re attempting to convey here, i.e. all the moving parts. But stations are a critical part of the actual transportation. For without stations, there would be no transport. I dare suggest that the MTA follows the same logic that you outlined. Good, functional stations seem an afterthought in most instances.

Scott E January 11, 2011 - 9:04 am

Waterproofing a station isn’t easy. I’ve not done it myself, but I’ve spoken to those who have. When you put a concrete box underground, beneath the water-table, it’s very difficult to avoid leaks. It’s even harder to find and patch a leak once it develops since you can’t patch it from the outside.

My point is this: the Second Avenue Subway station design incorporates a “drained-cavern” system to channel water away from the station shell (on the OUTSIDE) to avoid this very problem. People wonder why the Second Avenue stations cost so much more and take so much longer to build than the subway stations of 100 years ago. This is just one of the reasons.

How well does it work? I suppose the new South Ferry station is the closest example we can find, and we know that it sprung a leak last year. Granted, it was an extension of the existing Whitehall St station and is a stone’s throw from the East River, so hopefully we won’t see this problem on Second Ave.

Sorry for the digression, I just thought it was an interesting point to make. Maybe these older stations have reached their true end-of-life.

Al D January 11, 2011 - 9:09 am

The G at Brodaway is a pretty good example of water issues. There are 2 big, babbling brooks that have a steady source somewhere up the line and these fast running streams are right in between each of the tracks. So next time we have a drought, someone be sure to turn off the source.

pete January 11, 2011 - 5:11 pm

Those could be water main leaks, or sewer leaks, into the subway.

BrooklynBus January 11, 2011 - 10:07 am

Good post. You didn’t digress.

al January 11, 2011 - 11:05 am

End of life issues could be problematic for the MTA and PA this century. Some of those tunnels are under the water table in brackish groundwater. Part of this is a given with underwater tunnels due to the East River being a salty tidal strait. That does not bode well for steel rebar and other steel and iron structural components. Worse, the concrete component in reinforced concrete also suffer from chloride ion attack.

Another issue is the reduced water table levels. The highly paved urban street prevents precipitation from infiltrating into the ground. This is a good and bad thing. In areas away from the shore this reduces leaks, and the resultant corrosion and deterioration, from cracks in the tunnel structure. In stations near the shoreline, the reduced water table increases saltwater infiltration, and thus groundwater salinity.

Older tunnels (most PATH, IRT, BMT, and IND tunnels) used older concrete, or iron and brick, and are very dependent on waterproofing to keep the water and chloride ions away from the steel, iron, and concrete. Some newer construction (New South Ferry station, 63rd st tunnel?) might have chloride resistant concrete, and better drainage designs, but I’m not sure.

All this is pointing towards a very expensive, disruptive, and necessary tunnel reconstruction or replacement cycle later this century. I wonder if anyone is looking at this possibility.

pete January 11, 2011 - 5:09 pm

The South Ferry leaks are because the MTA hired the Mob to do the waterproofing job.

But the contractor, Schiavone Construction of Secaucus, botched the waterproofing for the station, which is located deep under the water table, according to the MTA’s independent engineer. For its part, Schiavone claimed that the MTA had flubbed the project’s design. An independent dispute board ruled last year that both parties were at fault and must share costs for the remediation.


Federal agents arrested Anthony Delvescovo, the 51-year-old director of tunnel operations for Schiavone Construction Co., as part of a broad offensive against mob-related racketeering.


John January 11, 2011 - 9:14 am

I’m for anything that keeps the system’s stations from taking on the look of Chambers Street, but at the same time I remember the William Ronan era of the early 1970s, when the MTA’s answer to hiding deferred maintenance was simply to paint everything (or in the case of the BMT Broadway/Fourth Avenue stations, re-tile it) in mostly the new agency’s corporate colors as an attempt to show things were being maintained properly.

In a time of limited funds, keep the cars, tracks, signals, escalators and elevators maintained first, along with keeping the stations structurally sound (I’m amazed nobody in the media has ever asked the question is it really good to have a station as bad-looking and water-corroded as Chambers right underneath a 40-story, 95-year-old office building, though since Chambers doesn’t have a line going to midtown Manhattan, they probably don’t even know it’s there). Once those concerns as dealt with, then the MTA can start seriously dealing with the system’s cosmetic problems.

Shabazz Stuart January 12, 2011 - 1:23 am

Does the Broken Glass theory apply here? In the 70’s people screamed “fix the real crime problems” instead of dealing with the graffiti, but yet graffiti was symbolic of the decay of the entire system, and the chaos that governed it.

People throw trash and pee in subway stations because many of them aren’t very nice places, in fact some of them are down-right trashy. If you want to usher in a new day in how people treat the subway and the trains that ride through them, focusing on “cosmetic problems” might not be a bad idea.

Kid Twist January 11, 2011 - 9:43 am

The condition of the paint on some of the concrete surfaces is attrocious — walls as well as ceilings. I don’t quite understand why they keep trying to paint these things if they peel so badly so quickly. Can’t they just sandblast them and put a coat of sealant on them? If you look at old photos, you can see that a lot of these surfaces were designed to be bare concrete to begin with. The TA seems to be creating its own maintenance headaches.

Scott E January 11, 2011 - 10:21 am

Again, look at Second Ave Subway. There is no paint whatsoever in there, though the (low-maintenance, high-cost) granite walls and floors might be a bit too much in the opposite extreme. The paint-over-bare concrete you refer to is probably there to hide water stains, dirt, and/or grafitti.

al January 11, 2011 - 11:13 am

Some of it is water infiltration, as concrete is permeable. Trains can shake and vibrate the paint loose over time. Another issue is that some of the paint can be old, and has not been removed (EXPENSIVE & DISRUPTIVE LEAD PAINT ABATEMENT).

Christopher January 11, 2011 - 12:00 pm

Bare concrete darkens. DC’s metro has struggled with slowly darkening stations over the last 30 years (also marred by water stains, but it’s a VERY deep system to account for DC’s much more uneven terrain). They’ve tried a number of solutions from painting to steaming cleaning to a combination there of. Like the SF’s Golden Gate Bridge, this kind of cleaning maintenance is a never-ending cycle as soon as you get to the end of the station (or bridge in in the GGB example) you start over again at the beginning.

David January 11, 2011 - 1:05 pm

I’ve been in a lot of subways around the world including London and Paris which have stations that are just as old as New York’s subway. Their stations all seem to be clean and in very good condition. Think Moscow Metro and their underground palace platforms.
It all boils down to maintenance. Just like our bridges and highways are falling apart, so too are our underfunded transit systems. Putting off basic cleaning and repair will only cost more later.
Given the huge financial deficit our governments face, you have to wonder how these enormous problems will ever get fixed.

Andrew January 11, 2011 - 10:02 pm

It also probably has something to do with opportunities for maintenance and cleaning. Those systems close down every night. New York’s doesn’t, and temporary closures for maintenance or cleaning have to be coordinated with the other work that’s going on.

Shabazz Stuart January 12, 2011 - 1:27 am


Even the Path has cleaner platforms and better maintained stations than the MTA, and they use old 24-hour stations too.

You can sweep a station clean in the middle of the night, even when their is service. You can close a station down one weekend per year for re-painting etc.

Andrew January 12, 2011 - 6:46 am

Stations are regularly swept. But sweeping doesn’t remove urine.

Shabazz Stuart January 12, 2011 - 2:14 pm

cleaning involves more than sweeping. Have you ever seen a cleaning taking place in one of the stations, it involves power washing and mopping.

I’m not sure how often that is done, as opposed to the half-assed sweep.

Benjamin Kabak January 12, 2011 - 2:18 pm

The half-assed sweep that’s negated when a garbage collector drags a leaky bag 40 yards down the platform and up a set of stairs. I see that happen regularly at 7th Ave. on the Brighton Line, and it’s both disgusting and counterproductive.

Andrew January 12, 2011 - 10:43 pm

No, actually, I haven’t seen anything more extensive than a sweeping. It’s certainly not done often.

Alon Levy January 13, 2011 - 1:59 am

I have seen those hosings, a couple of times at 116th.

Andrew January 11, 2011 - 10:00 pm

Actually, stations, being highly visible, have a relatively easy time of finding funding. It’s the behind-the-scenes stuff, like signals, that often gets bounced from capital program to capital program. Much of the IND still has its original 1933-era signals.

Elected officials like to see station rehabs in their districts. They don’t care much about signal system upgrades (except when the old signals fail).

Alon Levy January 12, 2011 - 2:10 am

If the MTA told them how much capacity could be squeezed out of a well-signaled two-track line, they might change their minds.

Andrew January 12, 2011 - 6:50 am

I doubt it. And on most lines, current service levels are adequate, so NYCT wouldn’t increase service even if it were possible.

Also, much of the expense in signal systems is at interlockings, where the new signals may not have improved capacity at all.

I wonder if the MTA would be willing to reduce its loading guidelines on OPTO lines, which have much lower labor costs. If that were done, then converting to OPTO would lead to service increases (as permitted by the signal system).

Shabazz Stuart January 12, 2011 - 2:21 pm

really? ask the people who ride the F train. Not to mention the 7 train…

Andrew January 12, 2011 - 10:53 pm

Service levels aren’t decided by public opinion. There needs to be an objective measure by which to determine when a line is overcrowded. That objective measure, during rush hours, is 110 people on an A Division car, or 145 people on a 60 foot B Division car, or 175 people on a 75 foot B Division car. (That’s about 3 sq feet per standee, plus a fully seated load.)

F loads are discussed on page 12-13:

Shabazz Stuart January 12, 2011 - 1:16 am

I’m really glad you wrote this Ben.

The problem with the MTA’s approach is lack of attention to detail. Other American cities like Boston and Washington have relatively immaculate and well maintained stations. Here, I’m often left staring at the nasty ceilings, and piled up trash at many of the stations.

Sometimes, it’s even less than that. At Jay street for example the MTA lit up the three old-fashioned light bulbs that adorned the newsstands there. These retro light fixtures didn’t add any function to the station, but were certainly a nice touch.

Within three weeks of completion, all the bulbs are out again. No big surprise there.

Ben, maybe you can answer this but I’ve also noticed that the MTA uses materials that seem prone to easy dilapidation.
Why continue to use paint in renovated stations, if you can’t maintain it. Why not use larger tiles or simply concrete or other low-cost material like the DC Metro if you know your not going going to be able to replace the ceramic tiles as they age. The tiles look great at first, but not so great when they are in mid-age. In Boston they’ve had great luck using concrete, and aluminum in the ceilings of both new and old stations. It would just seem to make sense.

On an unrelated note
; no one can do anything about this, but its a major disappointment that the city hall station didn’t become the official “style” of the subway system. The gap between the thought that went into that stations and the thought that went into other stations in the system is breathtaking. The IND stations are especially bland.

Bruce M January 12, 2011 - 3:12 am

Bravo for this post! I have long lamented about the state of the stations, and the MTA’s inability to perform even simple cleaning. I find it particularly appalling that stations that the MTA has spent millions of $$$ to renovate (ie: 42nd/8th, 34th/6th, Union Sq.) are left to rot just as soon as the paint dries–let alone starts to peel. Brand new tile coverings over the old tiles are soon covered in soot, stains, and the like, and new flooring is quickly marred by grime and gum. “Station Cleaners” do little more than half-heartedly sweep loose trash into dust pans. Whatever happened to good ole’ Ajax and scrub brushes? Must be against union rules.
Moreover, the MTA signals its unwillingness to improve overall station appearance and cleanliness when it made its decision to paint the ceilings brownish-black. It’s really convenient for camouflaging years of accumulating soot. I’ve seen old photos from the days when the IND was relatively new: white ceilings! How much brighter would that make stations appear vs. the dreary gloom that the MTA has made standard throughout the system.
While I’m against naming rights of stations by corporate interests, perhaps they should consider some sort of “Adopt-a-station” program where corporations might sponsor some more professional cleaning services.

al January 13, 2011 - 6:59 pm

Yes, that could be just the ticket. Organizations like the Bryant Park Corporations and Central Park Conservancy could extend their efforts down to adjacent stations (5th Ave (7), 6th Ave-42nd St (B,D,F,M); 8th Ave/CPW (A,B,C,D) and 2 IRT 7th Ave (1,2,3) stations).

All those developments going up in Downtown Bklyn/DUMBO, Hunters Pt/LIC/Astoria, Far West Side, Flushing, Greenpoint/Williamsburg, could pay for these station cleaning services. The TA could hand off some of their station cleaning staff to district improvement corp. Property and business owners along subway lines could form organizations to do something similar.

Graffiti, litter, turnstile jumper, and other non violent offenders could be given community service to clean these stations and surrounding areas. It would also serve as deterrence to future offenders. Managed correctly, these community service station cleaning crews, could quickly clean these stations.

paulb January 12, 2011 - 10:57 am

The platforms are at least a little better now. The tiles get pressure washed (I’ve seen it being done) and the old gum gets removed. To be replaced by new gum, of course….

al January 13, 2011 - 6:34 pm

Some high volume high profile stations get this treatment. Jay St-MetroTech is one I’ve seen. A truck pulls up and they run hoses for high pressure washers down to the platform. They scrub down some spots, but don’t remove gum spots.

The problem is with stations without high profile champions or visibility, or people with connections.

Shabazz Stuart January 14, 2011 - 3:57 am

One station that is perpetually clean (I can’t figure out why) is 14th Street on the 8th avenue line.

That station was renovated about 10 years ago, and unlike other renovated stations, seems just as bright and clean as it was on the first day.

Has anyone else noticed this?


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