By Jill Colvin
MANHATTAN — MTA signal inspectors routinely falsified inspection reports, the city's transit head said Thursday, putting millions of straphangers at risk of collision.
A whopping 97 percent of employees in 1996 filed reports logging more inspections than they possibly could have completed, NYC Transit President Thomas Prendergast said at a City Council hearing called in response to allegations of fraud.
He said that 70 percent of inspectors filed red flag-raising reports in 2010.
Most of the people now in the division have likely been involved in some level of fraud, Prendergast said.
"Many of us are shocked," City Council Transportation Chair James Vacca said. "Its unacceptable. We pay fares, we pay tolls. We expect public safety."
In November, reports emerged alleging that MTA signal inspectors had fudged paperwork concerning signals and track switches for more than a decade.
MTA officials and union heads confirmed Thursday that overwhelmed inspectors were routinely pressured by managers to say they had done more work than they had.
"They were more fearful they would be disciplined by not completing an activity," Prendergast said.
Prendergast blamed the MTA's complete-the-job-at-all-costs culture for the years of systemic abuse.
"This is a senior management failure," he said.
John Samuelsen, President of Local 100, the Transportation Workers Union of Greater New York, agreed with the assessment.
"The MTA put a gun to their heads and said either they sign off on erroneous forms or face the consequences," he said.
Falsifying signal reports is a criminal offense.
Despite the widespread abuse, officials tried to assure riders that they are not at risk.
"We can say with certainty the signal system is safe," said Wynton Habersham, the signal division's new chief electrical officer, who said the agency had completed an extensive evaluation of signals across the system.
Even if there had been lapses, he said the system is designed to be "fail safe" so that trains stop automatically if something goes wrong.
But Samuelsen said that some of the signals inspectors skipped were "trippers" that activate train brakes. He said that if the trippers fail, trains can collide.
Asked if there had been any near-misses because of the fraud, officials were less sure.
"I cannot definitely state that there wasn’t," Prendergast said.
Officials said the inspector general alerted the agency to its findings in July, 2010. In response, they created a task force that has led an aggressive investigation into the root of the management problems, Prendergast said.
The task force has also come up with a game plan that includes hiring more signal helpers and instituting a new audit system. A memo released on Oct. 21, 2010 told employees not to falsify records and informed them that they would not be punished for failing to finish impossible tasks, officials said.
The team also went on a "maintenance blitz," focusing on the business core "to make it whole."
Both the Inspector General's Office and the Manhattan District Attorney's Office are engaged in their own criminal investigations, Prendergast said.
In addition to the scope of the fraud, City Council members were particularly dismayed at the fact that not a single person has been fired for falsifying reports.
"They have betrayed the public trust. They have put millions of lives at risk everyday," Council Woman Jessica Lappin said, calling for firings, prosecution and jail time for those who lied.
But Prendergast said that poor record-keeping makes it extremely difficult to determine exactly who filed reports and that there are few workers qualified for the job.
The subway system has over 2,600 track switches and 15,000 signal locations. Signals and switches are supposed to be maintained every 90 and 30 days.
Samuelsen said that while the MTA promises change, the only real solution is more manpower so that workers stop being pressured to do more than they can.
The number of signal maintainers is down from more than 2,000 in the 1980s to 1,200, he said.
"Obviously there's a manpower shortage that must be addressed. And that in fact is at the root of the problem," he said.
Two previous reports also found negligent or faked signal inspections. In 2006, inspectors noted that "the system lacked internal controls to prevent fraud and falsification of inspection and maintenance records," and in 2000, a report found over 2,000 signal reports had been fudged.
Vacca said he will call another hearing to revisit the issue within six months.