Borough Hall subway station ceiling collapse: A symptom of a much wider problem
The ceiling collapse at the 4 and 5 lines’ Borough Hall station on June 15 may have been symptomatic of problems that can be found throughout subway stations in Brooklyn and Queens and that endanger riders’ daily commutes in the largest subway system in the nation.
Borough Hall was not in pristine condition before the semi-collapse. A photo of the station published in the Eagle in 2015 shows many chipped tiles on the main section of the wall as well as entire stretches of tiles missing in the mosaic spelling out the name “Borough Hall.” Another photo shows peeling plaster and paint in a passageway leading to an exit.
Turning to Queens, a station in that borough, 52nd Street-Roosevelt Avenue on the 7 line, was rated the worst in the city three years ago by the Citizens Budget Commission. Seventy-nine percent of its structural features needed repair, according to the CBC. And while MTA has begun to repair some of the stations on the 7 line, Queens residents have often reported seeing aged paint chips containing lead falling off the elevated No. 7 train trestle — so much so that in May 2017, a group of them sued MTA, alleging that the agency has not addressed elevated lead levels in these paint chips.
In the case of Brooklyn’s Borough Hall, we have to ask ourselves what caused the collapse. It’s true that the Lexington Avenue line’s Borough Hall stop (as opposed to the nearby Borough Hall station for the 2 and 3 trains) is the oldest underground subway station in Brooklyn, dating to 1908. However, some of the 1, 2, and 3 stations in Manhattan are even older, dating to 1904. And in Brooklyn itself, many of the elevated J and Z line’s stations date back to the 1880s.
A 2015 Eagle article by Mary Frost informed us that the aforementioned Citizens Budget Commission ranked the station as the worst in Brooklyn that year. It was also rated by then-state Sen. Daniel Squadron (D-Downtown Brooklyn-Downtown Manhattan) as the worst in his district, with dishonorable mentions given to the Bergen Street on the F and G lines, Carroll Street on the F and G and High Street on the A and C.
In Queens, the CBC mentioned several stations “with substantial disrepair,” including 30th Avenue and 36th Avenue on the N/Q Astoria line (both of which have been renovated) and 103rd Street-Corona on the 7 line.
And there are scores of others, the most notorious one being the Chambers Street station on the J and Z line in Lower Manhattan that serves Brooklyn and Queens commuters from Williamsburg, Bed-Stuy, East New York and Jamaica. Rust stains from water pipes, crumbling ceilings, missing tiles — they’re all there. That station is scheduled to be made over soon, but we shall see.
Interestingly, the Brooklyn Borough Hall station was repaired six years ago as part of the Fastrack program, according to the Village Voice. Indeed, photos on the MTA’s Flickr site shows crews working on the track bed, replacing fluorescent lights and painting the ceiling. The Voice pointed out that these repairs were pre-Superstorm Sandy and that water damage resulting from the storm might have contributed to the collapse.
There’s No One Cause
If you’re looking for the cause of subway station decay, there’s no one culprit. In New York, there’s always the possibility of water damage. If one looks at a map of what’s now the city from the Revolutionary War era, one notices hundreds of small brooks and streams. Most of these have been rerouted underground, but they’re still here. In Brooklyn, the Gowanus area in particular was full of these small bodies of flowing water. With rising temperatures and global warming, according to an article in The New York Times published in February, there’s always the chance that this water could seep or even cascade into the subway, despite the fact that MTA pumps 13 out million gallons of water on a normal day.
But the main cause seems to be chronic underfunding. One of the key figures was Robert Moses, who held several city and state executive positions simultaneously during the 1940s and ’50s. He routinely switched money allocated for transit projects and maintenance to highway projects, vetoed or ignored plans to put rail or subway tracks on his new bridges (including the Verrazano Bridge) and prevented funds from being allocated to the Second Avenue Subway project.
Then, during the 1970s, after the city’s fiscal crisis, and possibly for years beforehand, the cash-strapped MTA New York City Transit adopted a policy of “deferred maintenance,” by which funds would be concentrated on acute problems while routine, day-to-day maintenance, such as painting walls and repairing tiles, would be postponed to the future.
What many people don’t know is that in the ’90s, MTA, believing that much of the problem had been solved after increasing spending again in the ‘80s, decided to cut back again, according to Danny Pearlstein, communications director for the Riders Alliance.
For example, according to a report by the city Comptroller’s Office, the MTA during the ’90s abandoned its goal of painting each station once every seven years. And it didn’t stop then: the same report show that the percentage of MTA New York City Transit’s budget spent on maintenance and cleaning dropped from 6.3 percent in 2008 to 5.4 percent in 2018. At the time, the public may not have paid much attention to the condition of the stations because it was preoccupied with delay time and overcrowding on the cars
The fiscal crisis is long over, but its legacy continues to have an effect. In May, new MTA New York City Transit chief Andy Byford unveiled a plan that would begin work on 150 stations within five years and 150 more in the next five years. “Three out of every four stations has elements that are in need of serious repair,” his report said. Many of these stations would also be made accessible with new elevators as well as undergo a “deep cleaning.” As always, the problem is funding.
I can’t give any easy answers to the problems befalling the city’s subway stations. If it’s any comfort, the Boston subway system, which is even older, has similar problems. But you can only kick the can down the field so many times.
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