Rats have infested multiple subway lines in lower Manhattan and often live right in the station walls, according to a rodent expert overseeing what officials say is a new approach to battling rats in the nation's largest subway system.
The persistent pests have lurked in New York's subways for decades, and the transit agency's solution has been to toss poison bait packs — which resemble single-serving sugar packets — onto subway tracks, with lackluster results.
So now the state Metropolitan Transportation Authority and city health department are attacking the problem by looking more meticulously at what attracts rats to the subway and keeps them there to make their homes.
"We're actually trying to measure what the factors are directly that cause rats to take advantage of certain stations and not others, so we're putting some science into this," said Robert Corrigan, a health department senior research scientist leading the effort.
He presented his findings Tuesday to the Board of Health.
The first stage of the project focused on the 58 subway tracks that run through lower Manhattan below Canal Street, looking at 29 different factors in each station, including litter on the tracks, holes in walls and the poison baits being used.
Half the lines were problematic, showing either signs of infestations or potential for them to occur.
Edward Estrella, 38, notices the rodents several times a week at his downtown Manhattan stop.
"When they see food, that's when you see them the most," Estrella said. "One time, I was walking up the stairs, and a rat went 'VROOM!' right past me. They're fast."
Corrigan said the main attraction in many subway stations is the room where trash is stored after it is collected from waste cans on the platform. He said sometimes the garbage can sit for days, becoming a gluttonous rat buffet.
And rats typically live in the walls of the trash rooms, which are often located right on the train platforms.
"They're not down in that deep dark tunnel ... the rats are living in the walls behind that tile," Corrigan said.
A family of eight to 12 rats can make its home in one cinderblock, and every cinderblock in a wall can be occupied "much like we do with apartment buildings," he added.
That can mean as many as 150 rats live in the walls of one refuse room.
For all the rat problems in the city's subways, which served an average of 5.1 million riders per weekday in 2009, Corrigan said the train system is not the most rat-infested place in the city. Parks, vacant lots and construction sites are also rat havens.
But combating the pests in the subway is important because of the potential danger, he said.
"Sometimes when we wait for a train, it makes its appearance right on our waiting platform ... and there is a serious safety issue, I might add," Corrigan said. "People have been frightened off the platform by these animals, so it's not a thing to be taken lightly."
The joint city-MTA program has been slowed by budget woes, Corrigan said, but he hopes a new rat control plan will be in place within a year or two. The recommendations have not all been developed, but he said he would like the effort to include advanced poison bait technology and new ways of sealing off trash rooms.
MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said the agency supports Corrigan's recommendations but is evaluating costs before moving forward.
Rodent control programs have also been slashed by the budget knife of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, like most city services. In the budget now being negotiated for the fiscal year that begins July 1, the mayor proposed dramatically reducing the health department's effort to clean vacant lots, which are often overrun with rats.