Home MTA Absurdity MTA IG report highlights deferred maintenance, inspection issues

MTA IG report highlights deferred maintenance, inspection issues

by Benjamin Kabak

The abandoned 9th Ave. platform, seen here 2002, poses a variety of structural concerns, according to a recent Inspector General report. Photo via NYC Subway.

Over the years, we’ve heard a lot about the two intertwined MTA issues: deferred maintenance and sloppy inspection efforts. The city’s subway network suffered for decades from deferred maintenance, and the agency has struggled to maintain even a state of mediocre repair, let alone a good one. Meanwhile, falsified signal inspection efforts have led to multiple arrests in an ongoing scandal. Now, a new MTA Inspector General’s report sheds light on insufficient structural inspections as well further highlighting the problems with and challenges facing the MTA.

The main gist of the MTA IG report — available here as a PDF — is that the MTA’s efforts at inspecting structural elements of the aboveground portions of the subway is deficient. I’ll get into the details shortly, but the MTA essentially accepted the report and its findings. In a letter to the MTA IG, then-Transit President Tom Prendergast had this to say:

The report and the ongoing discussions with your office during the analysis have been instrumental in helping us look at our overall responsibilities related to structural inspections in a way that will help ensure we not only address any/all deficiencies, but also get the maximum benefit from [our inspections]. We are in agreement with the substance of your findings and all recommendations and are taking a number of actions with respect to the structural inspection process at NYC Transit.

And now some details. From a top-line perspective, the IG found that inspections that should have been conducted annually weren’t happening on time, that no one at Transit was responsible for the Rockaway Viaduct inspections, that inspections of “hard-to-reach station ceilings” were already two years behind schedule, and that abandoned sections of stations that currently provide structural support to active parts haven’t been inspected. If this is now making you fear that your next train is going to tumble off an elevated bridge when the structural supports fail, I don’t completely blame you.

The report goes on to assess each issue on a case-by-case level. For instance, on the elevated sections of the J and Z trains’ BMT Jamaica Line, IG inspectors found $25 million worth of corrosion in various supports. The reports slams Transit’s Maintenance of Way inspectors for missing the damage. “These defects did not pose immediate danger,” the IG said, “but were nevertheless serious and should be corrected as part of a future capital project.”

How the inspectors missed these problems is even more damning. Essentially, they didn’t do a thorough job. The corrosion was evident from the station platforms, and the Inspector General concluded that MOW inspectors “‘had not focused’ on elevated-station-related defects for the past several years…because its inspectors had erroneously believed that Station Maintenance was responsible for conducting these inspections.” This is a classic left hand-right hand problem with potentially serious consequences.

The other explanations follow suit. We know there are issues with vaulted ceilings as we’ve seen them collapse. We know New York City’s bridges are structural deficient because it’s been in the news for years. One aspect of the report, though, struck me as particularly short-sighted, and that area concerns the former 9th Ave. terminal of the Culver Shuttle.

According to the Inspector General, the MTA “does not inspect all structures that are no longer used to provide service to passengers but that still serve as supports for structures above or adjacent to them.” Pick your jaw up off the floor, and I’ll continue. “Most such structures,” the report explains, “are abandoned sections of stations that support structures above, such as active stations, tracks, buildings, or streets.” One is an abandoned station at 9th Ave. on the D train’s West End line.

For decades, the Culver Shuttle’s former terminal has sat unused and above it, is an active station on the D line. Here’s how this tale plays out:

During our review of the West End Rehabilitation, we asked the Chief Engineer about the condition of the lower level of the 9th Avenue Station in Brooklyn, which is part of the West End Line, but has been abandoned since 1975. The lower level supports the upper, active level of the station, including its platforms and tracks. The Chief Engineer told us that personnel from MOW Engineering have been inspecting the lower level on an annual basis. He added that the structure is deteriorated in that it has dozens of “A” defects. He also acknowledged that MOW has known for decades that the structure was in need of repair but had not corrected the conditions. When we asked the Chief Engineer why MOW had allowed the condition to persist for years, he had no explanation. However, he noted that while the structure was in need of immediate repair, in his judgment structural collapse was not imminent because it was “overengineered.” The general superintendent for iron operations26 echoed this view, and also told us that the station was further protected by the five mile-per-hour speed restrictions placed on trains because of the curve in track just south of the station.

After the IG started poking around, the MTA initiated a $20 million repair program to shore up the station supports. When push came to shove, the money materialized.

Ultimately, this moral of this report is one that urges caution and structural soundness, two elements we should expect out of a subway system tasked with moving millions. It also highlights the physical dangers of deferred maintenance. The MTA faces a crushing backlog of good repair projects and simply cannot keep up with demand. Even as Transit vows to improve its inspection efforts, delayed repairs will mount. As the report says, “In our view, NYC Transit simply can no longer tolerate the continued risk presented by critical structure-inspection deficiencies that safety-related structural defects will go undetected and unaddressed.” In other words, better safe than sorry.

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John May 9, 2013 - 1:12 am

This makes me queasy. And I have to go to Richmond Hill tomorrow! The 111 St A station is a disaster, save for the refurbished entrance.

Frank B. May 9, 2013 - 1:34 am


Rami Kablowowow May 9, 2013 - 5:15 am

ew gross
you nasteh

Larry Littlefield May 9, 2013 - 7:01 am

And guess what, this is after $billions have been borrowed for maintenance. What happens when all the money goes to interest, leaving nothing for maintenance?

Nyland8 May 9, 2013 - 7:12 am

From the text: “that inspections of “hard-to-reach station ceilings” were already two years behind schedule, and that abandoned sections of stations that currently provide structural support to active parts haven’t been inspected.”

And then … “the MTA “does not inspect all structures that are no longer used to provide service to passengers but that still serve as supports for structures above or adjacent to them.”

Pick my jaw up off the floor is right. Methinks the MTA’s explanations are less than forthcoming here. From the standpoint of a subway, there is nothing easier to reach than parts of a structure that have been abandoned – because there are no trains to worry about!

If there is no train traffic, and no active third rail, then an inspector has all the time in the world to perform comprehensive structural analysis. If the rails are still in place, then inspection can take place from the bed of a work train. If the rails have been removed, then a rolling scaffold can be constructed, or even a personal man lift used. They can even work a normal day shift! As structural inspections go, this would be luxurious.

The MTA should be embarrassed by the IG’s report.

David Brown May 9, 2013 - 8:13 am

This should shock no one ( remember what happened in Washington Heights with the ceilings on the 1 Train ?). The reality of the matter is the MTA and politicians are interested in NEW projects that will go on for decades instead of fixing up what we have already. An obvious example is politicians wanting Madison Square Garden to move, so they can build a new Penn Station, this is a project that will not happen until the 2030’s (at the earliest). You can debate whether or not it is needed, but it should not be the priority at this point in time.

Larry Littlefield May 9, 2013 - 9:35 am

I agree on MSG, but don’t agree in general.

As overpriced as they are, the new projects such as SAS and ESA are a small share of total spending, and will be a small share of total debt service. Of course new projects SHOULD HAVE been the only projects borrowed for.

One can say that one irresponsible generation, the one that cashed out and moved to the suburbs, left us with a lot of physical deterirotation. The next, the state legislators who drive everywhere in live in NYC as they would in Darien, left us with a little physical deterioration and a lot of financial deterioration. We find out in 2015 is we’re going back again.

g May 9, 2013 - 9:43 am

A new Penn would not be an MTA project, even though they use the station. Since any major work on Penn is predicated on moving the arena it’s a discussion that has to happen now as their permit is up for renewal.

It would seem the MTA really needs to reorganize and streamline how it does inspections and prioritizes repairs. Remove steps from the process and create a system that ensures all components are looked at on an appropriate schedule, clearly define everyone’s areas of responsibility.

Using a little common sense would be good too. Not doing proper inspections to structures because you don’t have the right equipment means they need to actually BUY (or borrow from other MTA agencies) the right equipment instead of avoiding doing the work.

IsaacB May 9, 2013 - 9:37 am

Send “Crocodile Dundee” to 9th Avenue lower level to inspect the ceilings. 🙂

Ken May 9, 2013 - 10:23 am

This provides support to let planned fare hikes go into affect, even if the are not needed immediately. When there are funds shortages, the first area impacted is maintenance. There also needs to be some directive to put any surpluses (or a % of the surplus into maintenance). Any maintenance, especially if it can be accelerated, will have the best long term payback, even if it is the least obvious.

Oliver May 9, 2013 - 12:41 pm

As a structural engineer, I can assure you that a) we design to whatever requirements are in the building codes and b) that chief engineer’s “overengineered” comment is one of the reasons that building codes have factors of safety built into them.

Nyland8 May 10, 2013 - 10:43 am

Keep in mind that most of the subway system was built more than 80 years ago. Much of it might not even meet today’s codes. A significant seismic event could be catastrophic – both above and below ground.

al May 10, 2013 - 2:29 pm

It depends on where you look. Due to limited understanding of forces, some infrastructure built 75-100 years ago were built to extreme safety margins. Look at Brooklyn, Hells Gate, and George Washington Bridges. On the other hand, many structures built then have since failed or were replaced.

Overengineered systems, like all things man has designed and built, also have vulnerabilities that can cause failures. Case in point, water damage, especially infiltration with significant amounts of dissolved ions (esp in the presence of electrical currents) can greatly accelerate corrosion, and rapidly reduce structural margin.

This is why the water infiltration in tunnels with high water tables, (esp brackish ground water) can be highly detrimental.

The underwater rail tunnel flooding during Sandy exposed the cast iron rings to seawater and sewage. The salt and bacteria accelerated corrosion in a humid environment is something the MTA needs to pay attention to.

John-2 May 9, 2013 - 3:37 pm

The problem is a compounded version of Robert Moses Syndrome — Elected officials and others with governmental power don’t particularly like building underground structures, because nobody can see them like they can a bridge or a huge new development like Hudson Yards, and that goes double for actually maintaining those underground structures (els aren’t much better, but if they pop a rivet onto the street, they do get people’s attention).

It’s why they can spend billions on the Calatrava head house or design ornate, non-functional things like the Fulton Transit Center egg and not feel bad about sinking money into that instead of things underground, that are more necessary but which people can’t see. Frills get funded; preventive maintenance, not-so-much.

Phantom May 10, 2013 - 10:41 am

On Wednesday morning at about 730, there was a huge downpour of water directly onto the ( underground, Brooklyn bound ) R platform at Jay Street Station. The water was going directly onto the florescent light fixtures.

Don’t know if that is the result of any deferred maintenance or from bad design of something ( perhaps relating to the R/A/F connector construction ) but this was/is not good.

paulb May 10, 2013 - 6:29 pm

With the fare model now in use, is it hopeless? The system is too old, there’s too much that needs to be done, and work is too expensive. Maybe something radical like the Kheel plan is needed.

Theorem Ox May 11, 2013 - 8:08 pm

I look forward to the day the 7 train I’m in suddenly becomes a streetcar. Wonder if it will still beat the Q32/60 to Queensborough Plaza while running on the ground.


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