Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg bridges, are vital links of
Brooklyn to Manhattan Island and are all undergoing rigorous
reconstruction to prevent them from falling down. The BMT, IRT, and IND
subway routes make Brooklyn an integrated part of New York and yet
these essential pieces of infrastructure seem to be on their last rope.
Is Brooklyn being severed from the rest of New York City by it's
rotting infrastructure, or are we winning the war to remain connected.
See this in depth interview with one of Brooklyn's electrical workers,
who has worked on construction and maintenance projects on the Brooklyn
and Williamsburg Bridges, and the Cortelyou Road, Parkside Avenue,
Lincoln Road, Prospect Park, Beverly Road train station reconstruction
projects on the D train, and the Utica Avenue Junction station on the A
HT is a 34 year old union electrician and lifelong Brooklynite
who has been working on New York City infrastructure for over 8 years.
He has hung off the Brooklyn Bridge midspan in mid February, repairing
the electrical systems which make that Bridge, and others, usable. He
has similarly worked on the Williamsburg Bridge and various subway
stations, helping to bring the many improvements that have become
noticeable in recent weeks.
Welcome HT to Brooklyn On Line's News section!
- Hello Ruben - what's doing?
I wanted to start off today discussing the
conditions of our local subway stations. How do you view the current
condition of the system and the lines that you've worked on
particularly. Are you finished with the Prospect Park Station?
- We are finished at Prospect Park. We've
replaced nearly all the electrical cables and fixtures, and the track
work as well. Most of the other stations along that stretch, Beverly
and so on, are also pretty much finished.
Is that also true of the actual station
structures as well, the walls and so on, because the last time I was at
the Prospect Park station, I still saw stalactite ( editors note: An
icicle-shaped mineral deposit, usually calcite or aragonite, hanging
from the roof of a cavern, formed from the dripping of mineral-rich
water.) hanging from the section there which is under the ground. That
would make it less than complete in my eyes. And that is aside from the
cracks I saw on the walls.
- Well - the electrical systems are completely
enclosed from the water runoff which comes down from the houses and the
streets above the station, and the structural supports have all been
checked and replaced as needed so the station is as strong as possible,
as good as it was when it was new. The main problem is in the ejector
rooms because of the high voltage that runs through them, and they have
been completely repaired now. There is not much that can be done about
the cracks because to fix that we would have to remove the homes which
are above the station, and that's not possible.
Actually - I think those are apartment buildings over that station.
- I'm pretty sure that those are private homes, but the platform has been refurbished
But from my point of view, as a subway patron,
that's simply not acceptability, and the Prospect Park Station isn't
alone in this. The Nevins Avenue station on the IRT is outright
disgusting, and the work that was done on the Flatbush Avenue Station on
the 2 and 5 has been virtually undone by the runoff through the
grading, not to mention the spring which runs down the center of the
tracks. I've been told by TA workers that the water there is a result
of a fresh water spring.
- I haven't worked on that end of the system so I
can't really say anything authoritative about that, but the problems
that you are speaking of are actually maintenance problems and the TA is
not willing to spend the money needed to upkeep a 100 year old system
in that way. The walls need to be continually re plastered, and the
ceiling periodically scrapped and washed. This is politics as much as
anything. Look at the Beverly Road Station. That station was
originally built because a Mayor once lived there, which is the only
reason it originally was built (laughter), not that it is not an
essential station today because of the large population around the
I'm not really convinced that maintenance is
the only issue on this count. The Boro Hall stations' tiles were
completely fixed and replaced, painstaking work, and 6 months later,
they are all popped off and cracked again because of cracks in the wall
behind it, and this as a repair problem which takes some foresight on
the part of management. The result is that the money spent on that
project was entirely wasted.
- Well - water seeks it's level
...which is why the wall flat out needs
replacement or sealing or whatever. How would you describe the state of
the system in general?
- It's alright for it's age, it's safe, but it
needs major improvements. The TA can save millions of dollars if it
updated the switching system, which still uses manual switching in the
train yards. They are still using ancient enunciation...
- That's the way the dispatch and traffic control stations determine where the trains are on the tracks and the track conditions.
Oh - like the lighted boards that you might see at Franklin Avenue
How would this help save money or improve
service? I don't necessarily buy into the idea that computerizing
everything would make it more efficient, as much as maintaining it
- If the system was fully updated, they would know
the track condition instantly whenever there was a problem, now they
wait until a small problem becomes a large one before they make any
adjustments. The same thing with the trains. Maintaining tracks and
trains would be much easier, and traffic can be more tightly controlled.
The signals would also be more accurate and they could pass crossing
trains closer together and run the trains faster more often. This would
take major revenue, and the city is trying to stop infrastructure
I thought this administration was rather
pro-infrastructure. But when you have as much corruption and fiscal
constraints as they are looking at now, it's hard to get anything done.
Look at the FDR, for example. No one could tell me that this is not a
Mafia contract. They've been working on the damn thing my entire adult
life, and the way they are going about it, a segment at a time, they
leave behind built in cracks in the asphalt, and they are back to square
one a few days after the "repaired" section is repaired. Meanwhile,
the Bridges and Trains are being starved of funds and everyone wonders
why things can't get done.
- They are also using inexperienced non-union
labor to try to save money, and the result is that most of the time the
Union workers have to go back and fix the mistakes that the non-union
workers make. This just happened on the Utica Avenue job, where the
non-union contractor did such a shabby job, that for us to do our part
of the work, we had to go back and redo their entire project. But over
all, the central focus of the system is not the well being of the
public. And they are not sensitive to the problem of unemployment or
job security. Most of our Union members are native New Yorkers, and
there is plenty of worthy things that need to be done.
I think this is born out with the Metrocard
fiasco, which the MTA has spent millions of dollars on, and which it's
main benefit is that it will be easier to raise fares. And ditto with
the new electric toll stickers called the EZPASS for the toll bridges.
They wanted to put tolls up on the Brooklyn Bridge, but they didn't want
to add to the congestion. Now - No problem. It's a matter of time
when the free Brooklyn - Manhattan venues, which is the birthright of
every Brooklynite, and the reason why Brooklyn joined Manhattan in the
first place, will be wiped away without a trace.
- As I said, the publics welfare is not the central focus of the system.
With what I view as the imminent tolls on our
broken down and half closed bridges, and the increasing unreliability
of the subway to Manhattan, I see that we are slated as a Borough being
more and more cut off from the cities' center. I think that compared to
the repairs done on Christopher Street in the Village, the Prospect
park station has been severely short changed.
- The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Even without
computerization, there is a lot of work to be done. In terms of the
Metrocard, it also gives the Government the ability to track people.
How can they track anyone, they have no idea who is getting what cards?
- Yes - but the free cards given to employees, especially city employees, can trace the usage of the cards for each person.
I see, but despite the need for more work, it
seems only the high profile stations are getting all the attention -
- Actually - the BedSty stations are getting most of the attention at the moment because of the local and racial politics
I don't begrudge them this. Let them get
their new stations. People in those areas need good access to Manhattan
if they are ever going to integrate or improve their lot. With the
recent accident on the Williamsburg bridge, they decided that the
emergency braking system on the tracks wasn't high enough, and rather
than fix it, they decided to slow down the entire system by a couple of
minutes, but the real blunt of the slow down has been on the J, M and F
trains, which have come to a crawl.
- If the system was computerized, this wouldn't
have happened. The TA is also using cheap non-union labor and
inexperienced labor and they are doing shabby work. Then the Union has
to continually fix their problems. The Union has a strict training
program so that inexperienced workers are properly supervised.
I would think this would also pose a danger to the workers
- It's been known to happen
While we're on this subject, what are the working conditions like on the tracks
- It's filthy. There are homeless people on the
tracks and in the rooms in between the stations which causes dangers.
They hide in the storage room and hidden parts of the stations and
tunnels, even where trains run.
- Yup - there is a rat infestation, besides the
mice, and a lot of garbage between stations. The stations today are
cleaner then at one time, but between the stations and in the tunnels,
you have to be careful. There are hypo syringes on the tracks.
Wonderful. Has the station manager program helped with this at all
- That's a good program and it's had a real positive impact, but it doesn't help with everything.
People are really into Ghost stations, do you have a favorite?
- There are a lot of them, but the best one is the
Utica Avenue Ghost station on the A line which was just bricked up. It
would have spurred off the A line down Utica and I've been told that
the tunnel is already built all the way down. By the way, that tunnel
is a big homeless problem.
I wanted to ask you a little about the
Bridges. First of all, what does an electrician do on the bridges
besides changing lightbulbs?
- The electrical work on the Bridges is power and
conduit work. This means that there are large power cables that go
across the bridge feeding power to the Manhattan and Brooklyn sides, and
these need a lot of work.
Sounds dangerous, especially in bad weather
- I Know (laughter)
The Williamsburg Bridge seems just to
dangerous to cross at this point, and everytime we go across the
Manhattan Bridge by train. Yet I remember the days when the train would
roar across that bridge at over 60 miles per hour and it took only 30
minutes from Kings highway to 34th street on the Brighton Line Express
- Don't expect those days to come back.
Why does the city think either of these bridges are salvageable?
- They are sound because the towers are still
sound. The rotting cables you see are not the essential cables for
bridge support. The Williamsburg bridge actually shifted a little and
one road is being closed. Delancy Street will be hell for a long
You mean more hell then it already is. If
they took the Williamsburg bridge down, it would give them a chance to
integrate it into the BQE and the FDR in a more sensible way. As it is
now, it is a bridge that empties out on a near dead end street.
- Well things will be worse. One of the things
that causes the cost of fixing these things is the cities' interference,
for better or worse. For example, it was decided that the sandblasting
on the Bridge was putting lead into the surrounding land and water, so
they had to entirely encapsulate the paint. But this stuff is while the
work is in progress which sometimes winds up cheating the contractor,
or reversely, the contractor gets a big bonus from the extra
non-contracted for work. Then the city changes specs in the middle of
the project or individual inspectors with individual views on how to
read the regs decide that the way something has been done for 2 years
suddenly can't be done that way, and all new materials and techniques
need to be changed on the fly. Often these materials are brought in
from overseas. Never mess with an inspector, it's like sticking your
hand into a hive of angry bees.
I'm quite familiar with this sort of stuff.
About 6 years ago, a small bridge over the brighton line on Ditmas
Avenue had to be rebuilt. 6 years later, they've changed the code so
many times, that the darn bridge is still not finished. And we're
talking about a bridge no more and 60 feet long.
- There you go! But the Williamsburg bridge, if
it will be safe, needs steel replaced. I was told by an Iron worker,
and this is just here say, that the Manhattan side has frozen and no
longer sways as it is designed to do, which puts a lot of stress on the
foundation at the on ramps and where the cables are anchored to the main
cable that holds the whole thing together at the footage. If not taken
care of, the steel that holds up the roadway might be lost. But this
is here say and a lot of work is being done on it.
Well - thank You H- - your on the job insight
on these projects is just wonderful. I think the Mayor should get
together with you so maybe we can get a few things done around town
- No problem - it's a pleasure
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