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.
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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.