The View from the Tracks

Most straphangers really don’t know the half of it. The platforms and vehicle interiors that the MTA’s 1.6 billion yearly customers see are only a fraction of the massive transportation system that keeps New York running. From train depots to tunnels to mall-size mechanic shops to miles of track that stretches from Montauk to Poughkeepsie to Tottenville, Staten Island, the size and complexity of the Authority’s vast dominion is seemingly unfathomable. Of course, it isn’t, actually. Someone has to look after it, and those men and women are the people who know the MTA best.

Reclaim caught up with a track maintenance specialist named Marc Albritton, who has been with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for 21 years. We met at 9:30 pm in a Transport Workers Union break-room trailer a few blocks from the Coney Island yard to talk about the state of good repair, labor relations, politics and as much more as we could fit in before he headed out to work the graveyard shift.

Reclaim: The past couple of years have brought some tough economic times to the MTA as well as everyone else. Riders see that in fare hikes and service cuts. What does it look like for you?
Marc Albritton: Like the 1970s. Right now, they got these revenue shortfalls and budget cuts. They’ve been there and done that in the ’70s and everyone saw the result: a system on its deathbed. Well, it seems history repeats itself. No matter how much they try to avoid the past, it seems like it’s inevitable. Things are starting to decline.

What does that mean?
They’re taking shortcuts. We used to have 92 days between scheduled inspections on the cranes that lift tracks so they can be repaired or replaced. For a while they doubled that: 180 days between scheduled inspections. Some people spoke up, so now it’s back to 92 days, but they’ve reduced the number of what are called “frequent inspections.” Those are like random checks, so they’re still trying to do more with less, and sometimes you can’t do that. Sometimes safety gets pushed to the side.

Are there other examples of a decline in the quality of work?
Equipment comes in and instead of automatically changing the oil, it’s like ‘Look at it. If it looks good, leave it in there,’ or ‘Don’t change the filters because that crane hasn’t been in service too much since the last time.’

So they used to stick to the schedule−
−and now we don’t. We wait and see, which might cost less in the short-term, but in the long-run, it’s expensive. This is expensive equipment. Saving on maintenance means that when things go down, they go down hard.

And you get these delayed maintenance instructions from management?
Oh yah, oh yah. There’s a meeting with the superintendents, I think, every Tuesday, and whatever happens at that meeting filters down to the supervisors, and they tell the hourly guys how to proceed. I told a superintendent, “You guys have all these meetings about how we’re going to proceed, why don’t you ever ask us?”

Do the superintendents ever go out in the field? Do you ever look up and see your boss?
They’re pencil pushers and paper shufflers. They’re going to tell you ‘I’ve been here 25 years.’ Well, maybe, but you never did my job, so how do you know what not changing the oil is going to do? Worse are the guys who come in from somewhere, try and change everything around, screw it up and then leave for the next big city. There have been too many of those guys at the top.

Are there guys in management you’ve liked?
Roberts [former New York City Transit chief Howard Roberts] and Sander [former MTA CEO Elliot Sander]. They knew.

You liked those guys?
Everyone here liked them (laughs). They got rid of them quick, too.

What did you like about them?
They listened. I once called Roberts’ office because I thought the way we were doing something was unsafe and 15 minutes later I heard from my supervisor that he heard from his superintendent, who heard from the general superintendent, who heard from Roberts that things could be better. That just wouldn’t happen now.

Why not?
Those guys were professionals. They knew the system, and they cared about the system, and they weren’t in it to pull the golden parachute. Now, it’s politicians. Hustlers. Mercenaries. Numbers guys.

Do you have advice for the incoming MTA chairman?
Stay. Stay longer than two years. Stay, and see, and take responsibility for the programs you implement. That’s not a genius idea, but I think it would do the most good. That, and use the system everyday. That’s what every other New Yorker does. A few nights ago, we were at Herald Square, 34th and 6th Avenue, in the center of Manhattan and it was filthy. The mezzanine was clean, but the tracks were filthy. Garbage. Trash. Rats. It was a medieval dungeon. Grimy, dark, smelled bad. That’s not what I want to see when I’m working, and it’s sure not what I’d want to see if I was waiting for a train, and it’d make me crazy if I were the boss of it all. The next chief needs to see all of that.

What about the bigger picture? The city? The state? The federal government? They all play a role in the MTA’s tough times.
At the highest level, it’s a battle between transit and transportation. People think that’s the same thing. That transit is transportation, but transportation for some people means highways, roads and bridges, and transit means urban centers. It means black and brown people. Transportation wins in that fight. Even if transit moves more people, even if it’s more important to the cities that are the backbone of this country, transportation wins out.

That’s happening right now. Governor Cuomo just expedited plans to rebuild the Tappan Zee Bridge without transit, even though transit was planned on it for years, and everyone agrees the area needs it. The Governor says it’s cheaper, and it needs to get done. His calculus is that liberals already like him, and if he’s a fiscal conservative sometimes then some people who are on the fence will support him.
That’s a bad script. Another guy ran in to trouble with that recently. In Washington. The president is having a hard time with that kind of plan. You can’t make everybody happy. At some point you have to decide what you really believe in and you have to do it. Those other guys − the ones you’re trying to convince − they just want to take advantage. To drain you. I think Cuomo should be careful with that because it’s failing in Washington, and we need to win here in New York City. We need to win.