Keep a sharper eye on areas under NYC’s elevated rails

The city’s new efforts are key.

New York City’s “carelessness, recklessness and negligence” led to the May fire under the Metro-North Railroad tracks in East Harlem, the MTA claims in the start of a lawsuit that charges the city with failing to maintain the property underneath the tracks.

The fire at 118th Street and Park Avenue, which delayed service for days and led to millions of dollars in lost MTA revenue, occurred at the Urban Garden Center, a tenant of the city’s Economic Development Corp. The center kept gasoline, propane and other flammable material under the tracks without permits, city officials said.

The MTA’s decision to sue should make clear the dangers that could exist under miles of rail tracks and the city’s responsibility to monitor the sites. After the fire, the city added inspections of businesses below the tracks, safety sweeps and more to prevent another incident. But the MTA has a responsibility here, too.

The MTA says there are 70 miles of subway and regional rails above ground in New York City. The safety of those elevated tracks and viaducts, along with the need for security from vandalism and worse, is critical. Most run over streets controlled by NYC. In some cases, businesses like the garden center are directly underneath, and in others, there are shops close by.

The city’s new efforts are key. But the MTA has to play a larger role, too, by inspecting and monitoring sites, and by creating stricter, widely applicable guidelines for property owners.

After the fire, the MTA and NYC checked on land each owns. But assessments after an incident aren’t enough. MTA officials said the city has given them an “open door” to inspect and report problems. But the MTA doesn’t have the legal authority and resources to conduct broader inspections or regular patrols below elevated tracks. That’s worrisome.

The state should give the MTA specific powers to conduct inspections. And at a minimum, the MTA should develop stronger partnerships with NYC, making sure inspections are done regularly and that business owners are aware of and follow the rules.

The Editorial Board