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Borough Hall Ceiling Collapse Shows How Badly Subway Is Deteriorating

The MTA and DOT have been squabbling over which stations are most in need of repair, but Borough Hall wasn’t on either agency’s priority list

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Back in January, the city’s Department of Transportation prepared a list of “priority” subway stations that ought to be renovated. At the time, a few members of the MTA Board, including DOT commissioner Polly Trottenberg, were opposing an MTA project originating from Governor Cuomo’s office called the Enhanced Station Initiative (ESI). There were several points of contention, including a failure to propose installing elevators or finding other ways to make stations accessible, but Trottenberg and others also complained that the MTA wasn’t clear on how it had chosen the 33 stations for the $1 billion project. So, DOT prepared their own list and compared it with the stations chosen by the MTA.

There was almost no overlap between the two lists. Yet, Borough Hall was on neither of them.

This is worth revisiting now, because the ceiling at Borough Hall collapsed this afternoon. A giant pile of roof stuff fell onto the Manhattan-bound platform a couple of hours before the evening rush hour.

This isn’t the first incident of this kind: Two weeks ago, some tiles fell on the Chambers Street platform as well.

Borough Hall was the 27th busiest subway station in 2016, the last year for which data is available, and the ceiling collapsed onto the Manhattan-bound 4/5 platform, one of the busiest lines in the system. Fortunately, only one person suffered minor injuries, but the debris covered a portion of the platform that typically holds a dozen or two people during peak hours. It could have been so much worse.

It’s no secret Borough Hall desperately needed renovating. As recently as April, one of its entrances was literally held together by duct tape.

Perhaps one reason Borough Hall didn’t make any emergency repair lists is because the station was repaired six years ago as part of the FASTRACK program, which included “intensive cleaning and maintenance”; the link includes ample photos of work crews staring up at/painting the ceiling. (It’s worth noting those repairs occurred pre-Sandy, and it’s possible some of the water damage occurred since then, although that area of Brooklyn did not experience any flooding.)

The damage here, though, is far more severe than fallen planks and plaster. For all of the subway’s trials and tribulations this year, its safety has never been questioned. But that question has now effectively been asked by the fallen debris.

The answers are not flattering: The ESI program (although the MTA has stopped calling it that) is plowing forward with three station closures in Manhattan slated for next month, to continue through the end of the year. According to the MTA, these repairs will also include addressing “structural defects,” which only serves as a reminder of just how many stations have those.

NYCT president Andy Byford told the press this afternoon that the cause of the collapse wasn’t immediately clear, but “there is some evidence of water ingress in that you’ve got a bit of paint peeling”; he said structural engineers are currently inspecting the station to determine the cause and the extent of the damage.

The MTA is now in the unenviable position of either explaining that it didn’t know the Borough Hall ceiling was in such a state of disrepair or that it simply didn’t bother to fix it. I’m not sure which is worse, and it doesn’t really matter. In either case, the onus is now on the MTA to prove its stations are structurally sound, because we simply cannot assume that anymore. The only thing we do know: Of the list of fifty or so stations two public authorities determined were most in need of critical renovations, Borough Hall was not one of them. Not to sound alarmist, but at this point, there’s no great reason to believe any station is safe.

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