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Keep a better watch for trouble under MTA tracks

The Metro-North fire in East Harlem on May

The Metro-North fire in East Harlem on May 17, 2016, pictured, was determined by FDNY officials to have been caused by an accidental fuel spill. Credit: FDNY via Twitter

Last month’s fire under the Metro-North Railroad tracks in East Harlem, which delayed service for days, sparked immediate action by New York City officials. They added inspections, safety sweeps and more to prevent another such incident. The safety of elevated tracks and viaducts, along with the need for security from vandalism and worse, is a concern for the whole region.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority says there are 12.5 miles of elevated Long Island Rail Road tracks, along with 70 miles of subway and regional rails above ground in New York City, and a couple of miles more in upstate Orange County. Some properties under tracks are owned by municipalities, and other land is owned by the MTA. Some viaducts run over roads or parking lots, and others have businesses, stores and more below them. The Metro-North fire occurred at the Urban Garden Center, which was keeping gasoline, propane and flammable material under the tracks.

The MTA has to play a larger role in keeping its tracks and viaducts safe, and creating stricter, more widely applicable guidelines for other property owners to follow. After the fire, the MTA checked on land it owns, including some on Long Island. But MTA officials say they don’t have the authority or resources to conduct broader inspections or regular patrols below all elevated tracks.

That is worrisome. The state should come up with a plan to give MTA officials a larger role. At a minimum, the MTA should develop stronger partnerships with local municipalities that house elevated tracks, to make sure that regular inspections and clear, consistent rules are in place across the region. — The editorial board