Home MTA Economics Supporting a station rehab and paying for it too

Supporting a station rehab and paying for it too

by Benjamin Kabak

The MTA and New York City’s property owners have a complicated relationship under the current transit financing scheme. Developers and property owners rely upon the MTA’s services to increase the desirability and, of course, the value of said property while the MTA relies upon real estate transfer taxes to help fund their operating budget. When it comes to capital investment, though, property owners owe nothing to the MTA but stand to benefit.

Earlier on Wednesday, while catching up on some transit news, I came across an intriguing article that brings this divide to light. It’s a short piece in Columbia Daily Spectator about a proposed renovation to the 168th Street station. This Washington Heights stop, a key transfer point between the Eighth Avenue IND and the IRT local 1 train, also serves the Columbia University Medical Center, and the station complex is looking a little unloved. While not on the level of, say, Chambers St. on the BMT Nassau St. line, 168th St. features your typically dingy conditions and cracked platforms. It needs some work.

Soon though the MTA will begin a partial rehab for this station. The authority will be replacing the brick arches with Glass Fiber Reinforced Polymer and will shore up some columns while repairing beams. This station, after all, is one with structural concerns with the ceiling.

According to The Spectator then, Columbia officials are pleased. In fact, the school’s board has long requested the MTA gussy up the station so visitors are not turned off by the grime. The way the article is presented though speaks volumes of how Columbia, which is currently building a massive complex in Manhattanville, wants to be involved. Luke Barnes writes:

University Trustees don’t like the look of the 168th Street subway station—and the MTA plans to do something about it.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is planning a renovation of the No. 1 train station that services New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia University Medical Center. Although still in the planning stage, the project is slated to begin in December and wrap up before the end of 2014, according to a MTA representative. “It’s probably the worst looking subway station I’m aware of in the city and it is a Columbia-related station,” professor Ronald Breslow, the chair of the campus planning committee, said at a University Senate plenary meeting last week. He added that the subway station came up at a recent meeting of the Board of Trustees, and several said that they were concerned…

Columbia officials said they agree that the station needs a renovation, but there are currently not any plans for the University to work with the MTA on its planned renovations. “For many of our students, patients, faculty and visitors, the subway station is the first thing they see when coming to CUMC,” said Ross Frommer, associate dean for Government and Community Affairs in a statement to Spectator. “As the largest destination for subway riders in this part of the city, we would work with the MTA in any way that we can to make improvements to the station.”

So a wealthy institution wants its subway stop to look nicer, but they also want someone else to do the work. If they contribute anything to the project, it will be to cover the costs of signage promoting Columbia. Otherwise, they are content to pressure the MTA to do something while they sit back and complain.

Now, I don’t think the MTA should be in the business of asking for handouts. It would be an absurd commentary on the state of transit funding if the MTA had to go, hat in hand, to private property owners in order to fund capital expansion. But if Columbia wants to see a station rehab that badly, they should be willing to do something about it. After all, they’re going to benefit materially from the MTA’s efforts. Why shouldn’t they be expected to contribute to it as well?

Now and then over the years, I’ve written about “adopt-a-station” plans as a way to draw resources to subway station cleanliness efforts, and I wonder if a similar program would work with the capital program. Why didn’t developers around 41st and 10th Ave. who would benefit tremendously from a subway station there figure out a way to contribute the effort? Why isn’t Columbia required pony up the bucks to help clean up a station they claim is “the first thing” visitors see? Subway improvements and system growth, after all, don’t just happen.

* * *
Updated (10:00 a.m.): From what I’ve heard from sources at Columbia, the issue at 168th St. is perhaps not as clear cut as The Spectator made it out to be. There are those on university committees who believe the institution should consider picking up some of the tab, as they did with station rehab projects at 116th, 110th and 103rd Streets in the past.

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Christopher October 6, 2011 - 1:46 am

Really? They shouldn’t use Tax Increment Financing or developer fees (through say transportation demand management plan as part of zoning?) to pay for transportation improvements in their neighborhood? Which would be completely opposite of the financing that major transportation projects across the U.S. are being funded? Now true there shouldn’t be a problem like with Virginia’s Silver Line to Metro that was pushed and funded by private property owners much to the detriment of system wide planning. (For instance there’s no plan for increasing capacity under the Potomac while adding an extensive outer line.) But some of the most innovative expansion and renovation projects in Chicago, SF, LA and DC have been funded through exactly the these types of programs. This is not unusual and would go a long way to improving our system.

Alex C October 6, 2011 - 2:48 am

Ssh! Quiet, or you’ll alert people of NYC of common sense! For now developers and the likes here in the city have a nice perception built up that it is their given right to reap all the benefits of MTA work without contributing anything; and the sheep are buying it.

There is no reason Columbia can’t throw a few bucks the MTA’s way and help rehab the station. They need to get with the program and actually do something positive besides making demands.

Hank October 6, 2011 - 8:57 am

Common sense? Good luck with that. This is a city where even basic economics is ignored (see Reuben Diaz’s new “living wage” proposal).

As a non-profit university, does Columbia pay any taxes to the City beyond payroll? I assume they at least pay property taxes. I am just trying to find any justification as to why Columbia should NOT be paying to help refurb the station…

Sigh… we want it all we just don’t want to pay.

Alternatively, why not have the convicts/welfare rolls out there cleaning the stations? The unions would go ape of course, but it might go a long way to improving appearances and cleanliness?

Bolwerk October 6, 2011 - 2:21 pm

Ruben Diaz may be a jackass, but just because policymakers in NYC don’t comport to your ideological biases doesn’t mean “basic economics” gets ignored. And, Diaz is a state politician, not a city one.

I’m pretty sure NYC exempts education facilities from property tax, but I don’t know how that extends to some of the profit-making activities they perform for their endowments. For instance, they own a lot of apartment buildings and rent them out, sometimes to non-students for non-educational purposes.

Alon Levy October 6, 2011 - 4:15 pm

Yes, there is a reason. Columbia needs to bank money for brown envelopes for future neighborhood demolition necessary expansion plans.

BrooklynBus October 7, 2011 - 12:07 pm

Columbia has no shortage of funds.

Alon Levy October 8, 2011 - 12:49 am

It does when it comes to grad student stipends.

Bolwerk October 8, 2011 - 12:57 am

I remember circa 2004 the grad TAs were trying to start a union. Guess it didn’t go too well.

Alon Levy October 8, 2011 - 12:40 pm

Nope, no union.

BrooklynBus October 11, 2011 - 9:21 am

I was a grad student there in the 1970s and the problem I saw wasn’t a shortage of funds but the favoritism in deciding who gets stipends and who didn’t. They set up criteria and then ignored them.

TP October 6, 2011 - 9:08 am

I thought the 7 train expansion project already was partially funded by a TIF-type scheme?

Alon Levy October 8, 2011 - 12:43 pm

It’s funded by the city, under the expectation that future increases in land values will cause property taxes to rise to the point of paying for the extension. I don’t think there’s any special tax increment for Hudson Yards, but I could be wrong.

Andrew October 9, 2011 - 8:09 am

That’s exactly what TIF means:

Ray October 6, 2011 - 7:20 am

City property owners/managers and institutions should be direct stakeholders in stations touching their property lines.. I dont care what the title/arrangement is… Lets open the system to Innovation, its about more than new tiles/flooring and refinished stairs, how about some air conditioning, contemporary lighting, furniture and platform doors once a uniform spec. is ready? Tishman Speyer should take over Rock Center. Vornado-Macys/ 34th Street Herald Square, Related/ Columbus Circle… There must be many pairings that make sense… and I’d guess there’s enough pride, competition and idle capital that some interesting things might happen quickly.

Moreover, there are city chartered Business Improvement Districts that could wrap stations in their domain… Times Square Alliance, Union Square Parntership, Flatiron 23rd, Herald Square, Village Alliance.. theyve tackled the street level well, let them do their thing underground. Can’t this simply happen with the mayor’s pen?

Maybe I’m too optomistic, but who knows, opening the system might inspire community groups, block associations, residential cooperatives/condos and local neighborhood orgs/businesses to form groups to adopt and maintain stations. The MTA merely needs to steward such interest by providing start up structure (perhaps a micro BID), maybe a little seed money, and minimal guidance so efforts are safe and within certain parameters.

Allow the MTA to focus its remaining energy where there is little resource nearby.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines October 6, 2011 - 8:44 am

[…] 2nd Ave. Sagas: Should Moneyed Institutions Chip In for Station Rehabs? […]

Larry Littlefield October 6, 2011 - 9:21 am

Yes, the Flushing Line extension will be entirely funded by a TIF scheme if any development occurs and the city gets a tax increment.

“Developers and property owners rely upon the MTA’s services to increase the desirability and, of course, the value of said property while the MTA relies upon real estate transfer taxes to help fund their operating budget. When it comes to capital investment, though, property owners owe nothing to the MTA but stand to benefit.”

If the effective fare had not been slashed relative to inflation starting in 1995, pensions had not been retroactively enhanced in 2000, the TWU did not impose productivity gains, and money had not been borrowed like mad starting in 2000, then all those dedicated taxes would not be going to the operating budget and debt service. They could be used for the capital budget instead.

Jason October 6, 2011 - 9:29 am

Whats funny is that this station was a jewel of the original system, 2nd only to the City Hall stop. Not even the 181 station on the IRT can compare. I hope they renovate this stop but bring it back to its former glory (maybe reinstall the hanging lights that once were in the main vault area, rethink the elevator situation by possibly bringing back the double-deckers, etc).

Kid Twist October 6, 2011 - 9:42 am

First, how is Columbia going to “benefit materially” from a station renovation?

Second, the MTA has a responsibility to keep its facilities in good repair no matter who happens to be situated near them.

Bgriff October 6, 2011 - 9:43 am

If I recall correctly, Columbia made a substantial contribution ($1 million seems to ring a bell) to the rehab a few years back of the 103rd St-125th St stations on the IRT Broadway line, serving its main campus.

Bgriff October 6, 2011 - 9:44 am

Oh, that wasn’t hard to find:


BillD October 6, 2011 - 10:17 am

I seem to remember that the American Museum of Natural History provided financial and technical support when ‘their’ station was renovated a few years back. But should a hospital redirect their funds to support a public transit facility? I wouldn’t want to be the one to try and defend taking money from the ill to pay for new tiles and lighting in a subway serving the larger community. I’d rather the hospital money be spent for local health care, which is already a major part of the hospital’s mission.

Al D October 6, 2011 - 10:23 am

“It’s probably the worst looking subway station I’m aware of in the city and it is a Columbia-related station,” professor Ronald Breslow

Boy, this guy doesn’t get out much

Peter October 6, 2011 - 11:02 am

No kidding! It’s not even the worst-looking station in Manhattan, not to mention all the outer-borough disasters.

Michael Romero October 6, 2011 - 11:22 am

Why not look at what Chicago did when Apple paid for the renovation of the station house right outside of their new store at North & Clybourn? I know not every company is Apple that protects its brand integrity so closely, but it worked out well for everyone. Apple got rid of an eyesore that they didn’t want next to their store and the neighborhood got an inviting station house and some needed renovations, plus Apple has first right of refusal on advertising. Seems like a win-win. Places should push for this kind of synergy that just benefits us all.

Jerrold October 6, 2011 - 11:52 am

“In fact, the school’s board has long requested the MTA gussy up the station so visitors are turned off by the grime.”

Either you meant to say “AREN’T” instead of “ARE”, or you meant to say “BECAUSE” instead of “SO”.

Jerrold October 6, 2011 - 2:40 pm

I see that it’s been fixed now.

BrooklynBus October 6, 2011 - 12:40 pm

The MTA is paying a pretty penny for all these station rehabs. Shouldn’t they at least last? I don’t ride the subways much these days but I was shocked at what I saw this past week at the Lexington Avenue IRT Borough Hall station. The original tile at that station lasted for around 70 years. It can’t be more than 20 years since the station was rehabbed and the new tile is already crumbling all over and looks worse now than before the rehab. Is it the materials used or is there an underlying water problem that was not addressed. Whatever the reason, we cannot afford to rebuild subway stations every 20 years. Everyone thought that these rehabs would last between 50 and 100 years, except for painting.

The story at Bergen Street on the F is similar. Also rehabbed not that many years ago, and not as in bad shape as Borough Hall, much of the tile near the floor is chipping all over. Water does not seem to be the problem here. I saw a few isolated sections where the MTA is in the process of making repairs, but again the question is why did the original tile last so much longer than the the replacement tile?

Alex C October 6, 2011 - 9:56 pm

1) Yes, water problems. Awful ones in a lot of the stations. See Bergen on the F and 34 St on the 8 Ave IND during heavy rain.
2) Lowest bidder contractors who do poor quality work.

BrooklynBus October 7, 2011 - 9:05 am

Well doesn’t it make sense to clear up the water problems before you invest money in a station rehab?

How would you hire contractors if you don’t use the lowest bidder process? How would you know if a higher bidder would do better work? These aren’t easy questions to answer. Let’s say the contract calls for a thirty year guarantee instead of five or ten. You would get fewer bidders and less competition raising prices. Also, the contractors would just blame the MTA denying any problems even if there was no water problem or it was not the MTA’s fault. If it was the contractor’s problem to solve the water problem, they would just state that changed circumstances caused the problem which was fixed at the time of construction. The matter would just end up in the courts costing the MTA even more money and the problems still woudn’t be fixed. This is not an easy one to tackle. I don’t know what the answer is.

pete October 9, 2011 - 10:40 am

The MTA hires the mob to do all the work. Thats the problem.

BrooklynBus October 11, 2011 - 9:24 am

Remember when the City hired the mob to redo all the concrete sidewalks around City Hall Park in the 1970s and it all disintegrated and had to be redone two years later?

SubwayNut October 6, 2011 - 11:09 pm

68 Street-Hunter College has anAdopt-a-Station plaque from the 1980s by the namesake institution don’t know any others except for the maintained by… entrances that keep increasing. Today it could use another.

Bolwerk October 7, 2011 - 3:43 pm

Makes perfect sense to me that the major institutions that are housed near subway stations would have some stake in, and even benefit from, contributing to their upkeep. Hunter fancies itself an up-and-coming research institution, and maybe even has potential to go in that direction if it gets enough political support. Its huge number of students crowd the 6 Train at some hours. If Columbia should be expected to have a stake in its station, so should Hunter – and NYU, City College, and others who could beenfit.

Hospitals, schools, major office complexes, and even housing developments are expected to lose money on parking, but can’t contribute to the infrastructure that possibly the vast majority of their employees depend on?

Bwoglines: Breaking the Mold Edition – Bwog October 8, 2011 - 9:58 am

[…] Trustees of Columbia University have proposed funding a renovation of the Columbia University Medical Center subway stop. (2nd. Avenue […]


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