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MTA incompetence led to Borough Hall subway ceiling collapse

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The audit highlights systemic issues within the MTA’s engineering department

Amy Plitt/Curbed NY

A ceiling collapse at Brooklyn’s Borough Hall subway station last year is emblematic of systemic negligence within the MTA’s engineering department, according to an audit published by the MTA Inspector General’s office.

The June 2018 ceiling collapse rained terra cotta tiles onto the platform and straphangers, giving one woman a concussion and spurring an investigation. But according to the IG’s report, MTA engineers and inspectors actually knew about the defective tiles nearly two years before chunks crumbled onto the station’s northbound 4 and 5 train platform; officials erroneously determined that the tiles were not “sufficiently risky” to require swift repair.

MTA officials overlooked the issue until the collapse, but even in the months that followed workers continued to “incorrectly evaluate” the condition of the ceiling as more debris fell. This chiefly stems from MTA engineers lacking the knowledge of how to assess terra cotta, auditors discovered.

“The supervising engineers who conducted the 2016 enhanced annual inspection admitted to us that they had only limited experience with terra cotta,” the report states. “The maintenance supervisor also stated that he never received guidance or training on how to assess terra cotta.”

One week after the Borough Hall collapse, engineers told the Inspector General’s office that they were performing “sound-and-tap” testing on the station’s ceiling, but auditors point out that this testing technique is intended for concrete structures—not terra cotta. To make matters worse, the Chief Engineering Officer, managers, and supervisors said there were “generally unfamiliar with terra cotta” and that inspectors are not trained to survey the material—despite it being in 13 of the subway’s 472 stations.

The debacle forced NYC Transit to declare an emergency, allowing the MTA to expedite hiring a contractor to the tune of $8.3 million, double the authority’s original estimate for the work. That contractor installed an “otherwise unnecessary” protective net, say auditors.

“This exorbitant cost was driven both by the urgency of the problem and the need to select a company that was ready to immediately do the work,” the report states. “Thus, [engineerings’] lack of knowledge and the resulting delays in seeking repair contributed to the need for this high-cost emergency action.”

This isn’t the first time MTA engineers have been called out for shoddy inspections. Previous MTA Inspector General audits discovered that the department was unfamiliar with surveying other subway station structures, such as arched brick and suspended ceilings. An investigation into a 2009 ceiling collapse at Manhattan’s 181st Street station on the 1 line found that engineers’ lack of knowledge delayed repairs, leading to the cave-in.

MTA Inspector General Carolyn Pokorny recommended that MTA engineers be better trained and that outside consultants with specialized training should be brought in when materials or structures cannot be properly surveyed by MTA staff.

In a letter responding to the audit, NYC Transit President Andy Byford said “structural inspections are taken very seriously.” MTA Chief Communications Officer Abbey Collins stressed that the agency already uses outside contractors to inspect station structures and that protections were swiftly put in place after the Borough Hall collapse.

“For years the MTA has been using outside consultants to perform special structural inspections and surveys, in addition to NYC Transit inspections that occur annually,” said Collins. “When the century-old Borough Hall station ceiling proved defective, engineers assessed the materials involved, shielding the structure, until a full rehabilitation could begin as part of the new capital plan.”