A shoeshine booth, a barbershop, and a café where chess players gather give the subway stop at Clark Street in Brooklyn Heights the atmosphere of a small town. But the station's welcoming façade belies some of the biggest service problems in New York City's system.
Over the past two years, the three elevators at Clark Street have broken down almost 400 times, averaging a pace of almost one breakdown every other day. Riders have been trapped inside the elevators more than 20 times. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority's maintenance crews have been sent out multiple times in single days to repair the same elevator, and temperatures inside the elevators have risen to 100 degrees.
The elevators, the main conveyance for customers to reach the trains in one of the deepest stations in the system, have long been sore spots in the community.
"In Brooklyn Heights, one working elevator out of three is about par," the executive director of the Brooklyn Heights Association, Judy Stanton, said. "People are just used to bad service, and I guess people feel that we're lucky to have even one working at this point." The only alternative to waiting is an 80-foot climb up a steep staircase used only in emergencies — and perhaps by mountaineers and marathoners in training.
Over the past two years, the transit authority listed fuses blown due to high temperatures, brake failures, worn-out molding, and general "door problems" as the most common causes of the chronic breakdowns, according to documents obtained by The New York Sun.
Elevator maintenance is a big-ticket expense for the MTA, which spends about $17.5 million a year to employ a 217-person staff of specialized elevator and escalator maintainers.
"Their official line is that it's a very challenging climate, and it's hard to keep elevators and escalators operating," the chief attorney for the Straphangers Campaign, Gene Russianoff, said. A transit authority spokesman said vandals and passengers holding doors open were responsible for most of the elevator outages.
When elevators need extensive repair, or when parts need replacing, the MTA sometimes has to compensate its workers at $41 an hour in overtime pay.
"For health or safety reasons, there may be resistance on the part of the union to have transit workers work overtime," the campaign coordinator for the Disabled Riders Coalition, Michael Harris, said, explaining why the MTA responds only after an elevator problem arises.
The MTA also will not send its own maintainers to fix broken elevators that are still under warranty. "They don't want to risk violating their warranty by doing repairs themselves," Mr. Harris said.
A spokesman for the union did not respond to a request for comment.
The original freight-style elevators at Clark Street were built with leftover parts from a World War II aircraft carrier, according to a former City Council member who represented the neighborhood, Kenneth Fisher.
"Eventually there was no one left alive who knew how to repair them," he said in an interview. "The wind created when trains came into the station discharged metal shavings into the elevators, and they were constantly breaking. The only way to fix them was to replace them." The MTA closed the station for four months in 2000 for a $3.5 million elevator renovation, but has not yet managed to overhaul their faulty service.
"The most frequent excuse for broken elevators is a lack of parts," Council Member John Liu, who heads the Transportation Committee, said. "What we need are Fords for elevators, and it seems as if they give us Maseratis. One has to question how these contracts are given out."
A transit authority spokesman, Paul Fleuranges, said the frequent breakdowns at Clark Street were caused by their extremely high level of use. The MTA also instituted a new policy this year that requires the agency to replace elevator parts on a regular schedule, rather than only when the elevators break down. That regular schedule, however, has the MTA replacing some parts only once every 10 years.
Mr. Harris said that the problems that plague Clark Street underscore a systemwide problem with elevator upkeep in the subways.
The president of Manhattan, Scott Stringer, last summer issued a report in which he found that the MTA "persistently failed to adequately inspect and repair elevators and escalators" in Manhattan's subway stations. The study showed that 78% of its Manhattan elevators were in violation of the New York City Building Code, which requires elevators to be inspected annually. A spokesman from Mr. Stringer's office said last week that they have seen little improvement or response from the MTA since the report was issued last summer.
Subway elevators cost about $2.5 million apiece, and the MTA expects to install another 13 elevators in seven stations throughout the system by the end of the year.
Some residents of Brooklyn Heights, meanwhile, say they are resigned to living with frequently faulty service. "It's better than it once was," a lawyer from Brooklyn Heights, Poppy Quattlebaum, who has been riding the no. 2 train into Manhattan for more than 40 years, said. "I'm a New Yorker, so I've become used to requiring function, not perfection."