2009-08-14 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

And Now For The Good News
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

We get so used to complaining sometimes that we miss the good stuff. After all, a newspaper like this gives us a chance to bellyache, to shout our pet peeves to the world and Rockaway has plenty to moan about. But what about those times when good things happen?

A couple of weeks ago my wife was on her way to the Five Towns and called me by cell phone to say she was, if I could believe it, stuck in bumper to bumper traffic that looked like it stretched all the way to Far Rockaway. The roads were blocked, she said, and the traffic was backed up across the peninsula. It's not the first time we've seen this kind of thing here but it's rare enough to get you to sit up when it happens. My wife said "You should write about this. It's incredible. Who ever heard of such a thing? It's like driving into Manhattan at rush hour."

I promised I'd look into it and maybe, at some point, knock off a quick article but she thought I was just blowing her off. She got so mad she just hung up on me! She said later, after she'd cooled off, that she figured I was simply not interested in something so mundane. I guess Rockaway's unexpected rush hour had frayed her nerves. But I already figured I knew what was going on.

Over the past few weeks I've gone back and forth myself along the peninsula's spine and watched as the old trestle, discolored and corroded from stanchions to rails, was being systematically attacked by a fleet of cranes and trucks as workers methodically stripped away damaged concrete from the underlying steel beams, exposing the structural supports. I had been aware for some time that contractors were preparing to address our aging elevated train line but it was especially gratifying to see the work underway at last.

In the winter of 2003, shortly after I'd retired from my last city position, I had driven along the trestle and been astonished at its advanced deterioration. Its concrete facing was peeling away ("delaminating," in the trade), exposing the girders beneath. They were pretty solid girders to be sure but rust was already evident on the exposed metal. It might take a century for them to fully corrode away and put us in the position in which the city found itself with the old West Side Highway. That elevated structure, running up the western side of Manhattan, had so deteriorated that nothing short of a complete tear down and removal made sense by the time the city realized it had to act. Once a certain amount of damage was done to the understructure of our trestle there would be no restoring it either, not without a similar tear down and rebuilding effort, all at a huge cost. And that point of no return wouldn't take a hundred years to reach.

But there was an even more imminent problem and it was far more serious. The concrete facing on the trestle was falling away across long stretches of the structure with huge, jagged chunks dangling loosely in places or already on the ground beneath in others. On a peninsula with limited thoroughfares for cars and pedestrians, this was a nightmare waiting to happen. Imagine the ensuing furor when the first 400-pound chunk of broken concrete tore away and finally hit an innocent automobile on the road beneath - or a citizen making his or her way across the street.

In my nearly seven years at the New York City Health Department I'd had responsibility for a number of areas, including overseeing and managing the upkeep, renovation and repair of some 54 locations. These included some 28 city owned buildings for which the agency maintained a multiyear $100 million capital budget for upgrading and restoring its aging and long neglected facilities portfolio. Our old buildings, both owned and leased, faced similar problems in many cases.

Once such damage was recognized, of course, everything would stop as we moved to bring in our engineers, architects and other professionals to assess conditions and remediate, first by sectioning off any areas of severe deterioration and then by bringing in the appropriate contractors to repair and restore the crumbling structures. When I wrote about our trestle's severely deteriorating condition in this column in 2003, I had my experience in the Health Department in mind.

But I also knew that capital projects typically take five years in the city bureaucracy (though more limited emergency work can be done more quickly). This doesn't compare favorably with the private sector but then there are far more t's to cross and i's to dot and hurdles to clear and review stages and audits, and so forth. And, of course, applicable and sufficient capital funds have to be identified and released, the job has to be specked, the component parts have to be bid and, given clumsy city bidding processes, as often as not re-bid and then re-bid again. I wrote in '03 that we probably wouldn't see any real work on the trestle, if it started then, for three to five years (not before 2006-08).

As it happened, about a year or so after that article came out I began to see painted red markings on the areas of maximum deterioration along the length of the trestle. Shortly after that, the loose concrete was cut away and removed. Someone, I concluded, had acted. (To make sure someone did, I had earlier sent a copy of the article directly to the mayor, though his people never got back to me to confirm they had gotten it — but I was fairly confident they had since I had had responses from them on other matters before.)

Now, midway through 2009, we have a major concrete restoration project underway on the peninsula's one and only trestle - one year past the outside date I had projected based on my experience inside the bureaucracy but before any major disaster occurred. If six years isn't any sort of record for speed, it's at least not much longer than most of the projects I had handled took to kick off and that ain't nothing in light of the fact that this is probably a much more massive job than my building restorations and that this had to move through at least two sets of bureaucracies: City Hall and the MTA.

The trestle's been an eyesore for years - a major disaster waiting to happen. But, in fact, it looks like this time the bureaucracy's actually managed to stay ahead of the curve (mainly because they acted promptly to remove the decaying concrete and began monitoring conditions and limiting traffic flow under the structure). So when my wife found herself stuck in traffic a few weeks ago, I couldn't help agreeing with her that the folks handling the project, along with the local police, could have planned it all a little better. They could have set up better staging to minimize the adverse impact on traffic flow and they could have fielded better traffic management teams to redirect drivers who became stuck in the massive jams that resulted from the inadequately posted detours and traffic warnings.

Maybe more effective advance notice to the community would also have minimized disruptions and spared her and others a really bad hair day on the road that day. But it feels kind of ungracious to be complaining too much about this, despite my wife's understandable road rage, given that the bureaucracy's finally got this one right. rockirreg@aol.com

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