An investigation prompted by multiple incidents of debris falling from NYC subway tracks found that seven inspectors skipped mandated inspections and falsified reports, the MTA's watchdog said Thursday.
The nearly year-long probe began after multiple episodes in 2019 of debris falling from elevated subway tracks onto cars and roads below, particularly in the Sunnyside and Woodside neighborhoods of Queens. That prompted a system-wide effort to improve debris tracking and collection -- but also an investigation by the Office of the MTA Inspector General.
"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.
The probe ultimately found that seven inspectors did not conduct their assigned inspections and then filed paperwork that said they did. All seven were ultimately suspended; six were issued final warnings and prohibited from performing inspections for five years.
“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,” MTA Inspector General Carolyn Pokorny said in a statement.
Pokorny's office said the MTA agreed to implement all of the office's recommendations for improving supervision of track inspectors. In response to the report, the MTA said 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."
The report did not find a direct connection between specific track defects and the workers' failure to conduct inspections. Investigators did find unauthorized cellphone use while inspectors were on the job, which they said raises concerns about diligence.
"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, who is running for Queens borough president. "The fact that it seems like it could've been prevented if staff just did what they were supposed to do."
Van Bremer was first to sound the alarm about the track trouble when he said he kept having people coming to his office with debris that rained down from the tracks.
"There were so many times when debris fell, that we started to race with the MTA to get to the site first, because if they got there first they would take the evidence away," the councilmember said.
In the aftermath of the incidents, the MTA spent nearly $16 million to attach netting under the tracks to mitigate the problem.