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MTA Suspends Several Track Inspectors

Thursday, June 10, 2021

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Last week, Metropolitan Transportation Authority Inspector General Carolyn Pokorny announced the findings of a nearly year-long investigation into neglect by several track inspectors.

In her report, Pokorny found that seven New York City Transit track inspectors were caught skipping inspections and falsifying reports of elevated tracks. In addition to the investigation, the Office of the MTA Inspector General performed an audit into the Authority’s management team to find out how such deceptive reports could have gone unnoticed.

“It is appalling that so many track inspectors, on so many occasions, skipped safety inspections, filed false reports to cover their tracks, and then lied to OIG investigators about it,” Pokorny said. “Management needs to utilize a technology that will ensure supervisors can verify when inspectors do their job—and when they do not.”

Track Debris and Investigation Background

According to ABC Channel 7 News, the IOG first opened an inquiry into the NYC Transit Track division in January 2020 following reports of debris falling from elevated MTA tracks in March 2019. At the time, victims of fallen debris landing on their cars or otherwise described metal bolts, concrete and steel pieces, and even part of a wooden beam as just some of the objects falling from the tracks.

“It' s more than concerning as I have said, this is a public health crisis, this is an emergency,” said New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer amidst the instances. “We have no faith and confidence that the MTA has truly inspected every inch of elevated subway tracks in the city of New York. It isn't just the 7 line. It's all of the lines. And the fact that you have had four incidents in about four weeks goes to show you that unless the MTA starts to take this more seriously people are going to get hurt.”

Mtattrain, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Last week, Metropolitan Transportation Authority Inspector General Carolyn Pokorny announced the findings of a nearly year-long investigation into neglect by several track inspectors.

In response to the series of falling debris, the MTA reported that they would intensify its inspections, planned to conduct an internal investigation, and even asked agency officials from Chicago for assistance.

“We are reaching out to sisters agencies,” said Transit Authority President Andy Byford. “Obviously a classic example would be Chicago because of the L. they operate a lot of overhead structure, to see if there's anything additional they do to what we do. But we will not let up until we put a stop to these incidents.”

The agency also went as far as to spend nearly $16 million on netting installations under the tracks as to mitigate the falling debris.

Earlier this year, in March, Interim Transit Authority President Sarah Feinberg announced that as a result of MTA’s internal investigations, seven MTA track inspectors had been suspended for failing to carry out their jobs properly. During inspections carried out by supervisors, Transit Authority officials reported to have found uncovered defects in the rails.

At the time of the discovery, Feinberg was also considering stopping the trains and shutting down entire stretches of elevated subway lines she believed were never properly inspected as required twice per week.

“The reports were credible, caused me great concern and we took immediate action,” Feinberg said. “I didn't want those folks touching anything that was safety-sensitive, so we removed those folks. And then I had all supervisors immediately inspect the entire systems.”

In a form of backlash, the TWU International President John Samuelsen criticized the MTA saying, “Frontline Track Inspectors are in fact being scapegoated for adhering to the flawed practices and procedures which have been in place for decades. The system itself is broken. And but for the expertise of TWU track inspectors, the subway tracks would be a disaster.”

While union officials insisted that the inspectors were not accused of any safety-related violations, they remained suspended while the IOG investigation was ongoing.

Investigation Findings

The IOG found that seven inspectors skipped mandated inspections and falsified reports claiming that the assigned inspections were completed.

“Early on, OIG became concerned that inspectors might not be walking their assigned sections because in some cases, no reasonable explanation could be found as to why the loose debris had not been identified during the required twice-weekly inspections,” the inspector general's office said in a news release.

While the report was unable to find a direct connection between specific track defects and the workers' failure to conduct inspections, investigators did find that the inspectors had unauthorized use of personal cell phones while on the job.

“We just got lucky that no one got killed, or that one of these bolts didn't strike somebody on the head,” said New York City Councilmember Jimmy Van Bremer. “The fact that it seems like it could've been prevented if staff just did what they were supposed to do.”

As a result of the investigations, all seven of the track inspectors were suspended, and six of the inspectors received a final warning that similar conduct could result in termination, in addition to being prohibited from performing track inspections for five years.

Pokorny's office also reported that the MTA has agreed to implement all of the office's recommendations for improving supervision of track inspectors. The MTA issued a statement as a result of the report’s findings, saying that the inspectors “violated the public's trust. They were caught and immediately removed from service...they are paying severe penalties for those violations. NYC Transit has zero tolerance for any action that could impact safety—period.”

Additional MTA Reform

In October of last year, the MTA OIG released a report recommending a revamp of the agency’s current contractor and consultant evaluation system. The report arrived after an audit discovered an “evaluation inflation” for those performing at only subpar levels.

In the year prior, the MTA Chairman asked the Office of the MTA OIG to review the integrity of MTA procurement systems to ensure that Capital Program funds were being spent efficiently and effectively. Specifically, the MTA OIG looked at the All-Agency Contractor Evaluation (ACE) system, which records and tracks contractor and consultant performance for capital contracts in excess of $250,000.

However, upon reviewing ACE, MTA OIG found that the system was underperforming and was particularly struggling with identifying contractor performance accurately and promptly. According to the report, “capital project managers have a history of rating subpar vendors in ACE as ‘satisfactory’ in evaluations, creating ‘evaluation inflation’ in the ACE system.”

In reviewing the ACE system from 2009-15, the MTA OIG found that due to institutional reluctance, MTA agency evaluators rarely issued less-than-Satisfactory overall ratings of contractors. While the OIG reports that it has since updated the most recent four years, data from 2016-19 reveals that the problem persists, and possibly worsened.

Discovered in the recent audit, data revealed that less than 1% of contractors were found to be Unsatisfactory, making over 95% of companies Satisfactory—the highest rating since 2013—causing the OIG to again be skeptical of the contractors. Previously in 2009, some cases revealed that companies that were clearly performing unacceptably were rated as Satisfactory by MTA evaluators regardless.

In concluding the audit’s findings, the MTA has found that the ACE system fails to provide basic, necessary performance information needed when making crucial contracting decisions. The audit was conducted by Audit Manager Navon Hirshaut, Senior Investigative Attorney Jonathan Estreich and members of the Audit Unit.

In light of the report, OIG recommended that the MTA take this opportunity to fundamentally revisit its contractor evaluation system as part of the agency’s ongoing transformation.

Since the recommendation, the MTA has agreed that there are issues with the ACE system that are ripe for attention and agreed with the OIG to revisit the ACE system as part of MTA’s transformation. System revisiting will be conducted by MTA Construction and Development and OCO.

Additionally, MTA Chief Development Officer noted in the report that the MTA was developing more objective metrics and processes to better track contractor performance and that the agency would incorporate these metrics and processes into a revised contractor evaluation system to be rolled out in the third quarter of 2021. Furthermore, the MTA Chairman is committed to working with agency staff to ensure that the agency will implement the report’s recommendation.


Tagged categories: Health and safety; Inspection; Mass transit; NA; North America; Program/Project Management; Public Transit; Quality Control; Quality control; Rail; Regulations

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