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Subway ceiling collapse in Brooklyn highlights urgent need for station repairs

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NYCT head Andy Byford has proposed station fixes in his Fast Forward plan—but will that actually come to fruition?

Photograph by Amy Plitt

In the wake of the ceiling collapse at the Borough Hall station earlier this week, New Yorkers might understandably be nervously looking up at the ceiling or down at the stairs in a subway station, wondering if this is going to be the next piece of the transit system that literally crumbles in front of (or on top of) you.

The good news, per one transit expert, is that the odds of it happening are probably around the same as getting struck by lightning. The bad news is that actually fixing the subway could take, at minimum, a decade—that’s the estimate in an ambitious plan put forward by the MTA—and paying for it will take an enormous amount of political leadership in our extremely functional state capital.

“The main lesson is individuals can’t be afraid of the lightning strike of being under something like [the ceiling collapse],” said Jon Orcutt, TransitCenter’s communications director. “But somebody could have easily been killed. Politicians like [Governor Andrew Cuomo] and Assembly Speaker Heastie need to be afraid someone could get killed under their watch. We have a subway plan that’s not funded and it’s up to them to make that funded.”

That plan is Fast Forward, recently introduced by NYCT president Andy Byford, which calls for a massive overhaul of the city’s entire transit system, from subway signals to accessibility to the bus network and yes, the subway stations themselves. Right now, the proposal includes fixing 300 stations in 10 years. Orcutt said taking care of 300 stations in ten year was ambitious, but also worthwhile because “it’s something we really need. There’s all kinds of issues with stations beyond basic structural integrity—let’s go in and find those loose walls and ceilings.”

But that’s the future. At the moment, according to Orcutt, it’s unlikely there are going to be public warnings to watch your head in stations that remain open. “Generally an agency that feels like there’s a real physical danger will rope off a place or close it, but I don’t think they’ll say, ‘The ceiling at the Natural History Museum station may fall, so use it at your own risk,’” Orcutt says. “That’s generally not how anybody works.”

What the MTA and city know and don’t know about stations could be a cause for concern going forward, considering—as the Village Voice pointed out—the Borough Hall station underwent FASTRACK repairs just six years ago. And while the MTA’s own Enhanced Station Initiative has repaired and spiffed up stations around the system, Orcutt says that since the MTA was “peeling back the layers, finding problems and having to spend more money than they anticipated at stations in that program,” even that repair attempt has fallen by the wayside.

“This is why, in our Fast Forward Plan, we have emphasized the need to accelerate the renovation, the complete modernization, of all aspects of NYC Transit infrastructure. This incident just steels my resolve to get the money that New York City Transit needs to modernize this system and prevent this kind of thing happening,” Byford said in a statement to Curbed. “We’ll get to the bottom of this, but again, this just reinforces my desire to get the funding we need to totally modernize all of our stations. This is one of our oldest stations, it does suffer from water ingress, I want to get on with it, and I want to accelerate the process of modernizing our stations to make them truly fit for purpose for the 21st century.”

The Department of Transportation also introduced a list of what it calls “priority stations” around the time the city was feuding with the MTA over the usefulness of the ESI program. However, a DOT spokesperson said that those stations weren’t identified as such because they were imminent safety threats, but rather “developed through an analysis of stations in areas that have experienced significant ridership or development growth, stations in or near major proposed rezoning areas, and stations that were on a NYCT list experiencing crowded conditions.”

As the city waits to see if the Fast Forward plan is fully implemented and the state government can commit to a regular transit funding source like congestion pricing, we’re in somewhat of a holding pattern. One person who has her doubts about things changing is Molly Scott, the subway rider who was identified as the injured straphanger who refused medical attention at the scene of the ceiling collapse.

Scott tells Curbed that she’s suffering from a concussion in the aftermath of Wednesday’s incident, and that she hopes speaking out about her injury could spur some change for the better in the subways.

“It is kind of sad that my first thought was that, since I didn’t die, nothing will change,” Scott told Curbed over email. “The ceiling at Borough Hall is much bigger than the piece that fell on my head, and thousands of people go through that station every day. It was reopened just a few hours after my accident—why would anyone think that the issue is already resolved?”

“I just hope that my incident might help encourage some long overdue investment in the infrastructure that will allow me to not worry about whether I’ll die when I step in the station,” she added.