I Sort of Figured Out the Purpose of the MTA Boat
But uncovered the mystery of the MTA motorcycles
Last year, the New York City Transit Authority lost its boat. It was not precisely a secret that NYC Transit (the subagency of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that runs the subways—but, crucially, not the ferries) had this boat, to begin with, but it was certainly not well publicized. The circumstances that led to the destruction of the boat, on the other hand, were withheld from the public, until a report from the Office of the MTA Inspector General revealed the whole sordid tale.
To quote from that report:
The Office of the MTA Inspector General (OIG) substantiated an anonymous tip to our complaint hotline that in October 2020, 2 New York City Transit (NYC Transit) employees were forced to abandon an MTA boat, a 25-foot Steiger Craft named Perfect Storm (the Boat), on a rocky shore near Coney Island. Alarmingly, the employees were untrained, inexperienced boaters who literally jumped ship to save their lives. The Boat was totaled after the employees believed they were left with no choice but to leave it behind, after unsuccessfully trying to arrange a tow. Overnight, the Boat crashed into the rocky shoreline and capsized.
The OIG report is basically a master class in Inspector General reports, and if you are an aficionado of the genre you will find plenty to like here. A sampling of some of my favorite lines:
“There was not even consensus among everyone the OIG interviewed as to the general purpose of the Boat.”
“the employees who supervised the Boat were at times unclear as to its purpose, and left to manage the care and usage of the Boat completely on their own”
“Ultimately, we were at a loss as to who specifically to recommend be held accountable. That’s because the proverbial buck stopped with no one when it came to this Boat.”
“As detailed below, the management in charge of the Boat had recently turned over, multiple managers stated that they had never seen the Boat, and the Acting Assistant Chief did not, in fact, even know that the Boat existed”
“Despite being the captain that day, the Hydraulics Maintainer stated that he does not own a boat and had no prior boating experience—though his colleagues all stated that they incorrectly believed, based on the Hydraulics Maintainer’s own statements, that he did.”
“When the Assistant Chief took over the Hydraulics Department in September 2020 as acting Assistant Chief, he technically took over the control of the Boat, but he was not given any turnover instructions regarding the Boat. In fact, prior to the destruction of the Boat, the Assistant Chief did not know that the Boat still existed.”
Here is the OIG’s brief history of the Boat:
In approximately 2000, NYC Transit purchased and registered a 2000 Steiger Craft 25-foot fishing boat. NYC Transit did not produce any documentation explaining the initial purpose for purchasing the Boat. The OIG interviewed multiple NYC Transit employees who gave different explanations as to circumstances when the Boat should be used. For example, in their OIG interviews, some employees stated that the Boat was to be used to transport engineers to various locations to inspect bridges, while others expressed it was for search and rescue.
NYC Transit may not have been able to provide any documentation explaining the initial purpose of the Boat, but, after a bit of a digging, I managed to find the contemporaneous explanation for the purpose of the Boat.
On August 3, 2000, Newsday’s Ray Sanchez reported the purchase of the Boat, in a story headlined “Transit Purchase Makes Waves” (continued on A52 with the headline “Some Say Transit Has Gone a Bit Overboard”). Sanchez reported that the 25-foot Steiger Craft Chesapeake cost the agency $55,000 (about $88,000 in 2021 dollars). This was not a particularly excessive expense. As Sanchez reports, “it was paid for with Transit’s take at the turnstiles in just one day at the Jamaica Center Archer Avenue station, which averages 36,000 riders every weekday.”
But if it was not an extravagant purchase, it was still a curious one. “‘What are they doing buying a boat?’ asked one skeptical insider with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority who asked not to be named ‘Boats are very expensive. They’re expensive to maintain. How often will they use this boat? What will be the life of this boat?’”
Crucially, in terms of the eventual fate of the Boat, the MTA could not identify to Sanchez who’d be in charge of it. “Asked for an interview with the person in charge of the boat Transit spokesman Al O’Leary laughed ‘We don't have a skipper yet’ he said.” (O’Leary went on to be a spokesperson for the NYC Police Benevolent Association, the city’s largest police union, until his 2019 retirement.)
This is what the Boat was for, according to MTA officials at the time.
In the past the transit agency rented boats whenever workers needed to inspect train bridges or provide a safety net for track workers toiling on precarious trestles “What if we had an emergency at the Broad Channel crossing at 3 in the morning?” O'Leary asked “Where are you going to rent a boat then?”
“We have very special safety needs for a boat” said Bob Slovak, another Transit spokesman. “When we have employees working over trestles on bridges we have the boat there as an additional point of safety should someone fall. We use it for maintenance of the lower portions of bridges.”
So that is what the Boat was supposed to be for. Unfortunately, as the Inspector General reports, most of the records of the Boat’s actual usage over the decades were lost when the Boat capsized.
For some additional context, ridership on the New York subway declined steadily from the 1940s through the 1980s, then began rising rapidly in the 1990s. In concert with that rise, the MTA began doing a lot of debt-financed upgrades and long-delayed maintenance. Sanchez’s story captures the era’s feeling of sudden abundance: “‘Years ago when there was no money everyone was so careful about every penny spent’ the MTA insider said. ‘Now you have millions and millions of dollars and people aren’t so careful.’”
After years of austerity, the MTA found itself flush with cash. And the fun did not stop with the Boat. A 2002 Sanchez story (which I found via a Twitter thread from “Pete from Manhattan,” who claims to have worked for the agency for 30 years) reported on the MTA’s purchase of two Harley-Davidson motorcycles, which, they claimed, they needed on account of 9/11 having happened recently. The agency said the cost of the motorcycles would be reimbursed by FEMA. As Sanchez notes, it was well known that Joe Hofmann, then senior vice president of subways, was an avid biker.
The MTA Inspector General also released another (significantly drier) report this week on the agency’s failure to carry out basic oversight and record-keeping in its capital construction program. Among the OIG’s findings: “No one is held accountable for failing to comply with document retention requirements in part because no one is checking.” And: “Currently, no mechanism exists to link documentation of the preconstruction design and construction phases of a project into a complete project record.” In other words, the MTA makes it effectively impossible for anyone, including itself, to know precisely how it spends its very large capital budget.
According to the boat report, “NYC Transit reviewed the fleet and determined that there are no other watercraft or non-standard conveyances.” Of course, NYC Transit seemed barely aware it had a particular non-standard conveyance in its fleet until it capsized. I reached out to ask the MTA if they still have the Joe Hofmann’s motorcycles. The spokesperson I asked is off for the holidays, and this didn’t seem quite important enough for the 24-hour press line, but I will update this letter once I learn the fate of the MTA’s disaster response Harleys.