When it comes to transit oversight, New York’s illustrious City Council is all bluster with little bite. The Mayor has the option to name appointees to the MTA Board, and New York City Transit operates under the auspicies of the MTA — a state agency. So when it comes to oversight, City Council members can haul MTA officials before them for a tongue-lashing, but they can’t actually do anything. On Wednesday, this impotence was in full display in all of its sheer absurdity.
This tale of woe begins on Wednesday morning with some truthful comments from MTA Chairman Joe Lhota or, alternatively, in the mid-1950s when the city punted on transit issues and funding. Council members, responsible only for statutory and contractually obligated parts of the MTA budget, receive myriad constituent complaints, but as Lhota noted to reporters during the monthly board member, they can’t really do anything about it. And if it’s one thing New York City politicians hate to hear, it’s how they can’t do something about what their voters consider to be a problem.
With trash in the news and New Yorkers complaining about the condition of their subway stations, Council Member Peter Koo told the MTA that he wanted to institute a letter grading system for subway stations based on cleanliness. Now, New Yorkers are quite familiar with letter grades. Even though the Department of Health’s restaurant inspection system doesn’t understand the subtlety of food preparation, the letter grades are everywhere. Some people won’t eat in restaurants with B’s or C’s; others figure that if the place is open, it passed an inspection.
Koo wants to bring that exact system to the subway, and his co-Council members love it. “Do you guys have a budget to clean the stations?” Koo asked “Or we haven’t delivered our message?”
James Vacca, the Transportation Committee chair who apparently cannot understand the differences between a restaurant and the subway, embraced the idea immediately. “I would like every station rated,” he said. “We rate the restaurants and every takeout place. Why can’t we rate stations on cleanliness, rats, water, garbage, graffiti?”
Why can’t we, indeed? Perhaps, it doesn’t make sense because food preparation and consumption are not the same as travel. Perhaps it doesn’t make sense because we’re beholden to one subway stop. We’re not going to walk a half a mile to find a slightly cleaner subway station. Perhaps it doesn’t make sense because what you see is what you get in the subway. I can see grime, trash and rats. I don’t need to be told that they exist. As one straphanger said to The Wall Street Journal: “They are relatively clean. Who needs a rating? If it has a ‘D’ grade, a failing grade, are you going to not stop there?” Other riders professed to care about service frequency above all else.
After the hearing, some transit watchdogs pretty much scoffed at the idea while the Straphangers issued a half-hearted call that “maybe the council should fund” such an idea. Maybe indeed. The MTA refused to issue much more than a collective sigh while William Henderson of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee shrugged it off. “I’m not sure it provides a whole lot of additional information that riders don’t already have by being there,” he said. “In an environment where resources are strained, I’m not sure that’s exactly the path to take.”
One City Council member who seemed to grasp the absurdity of it all offered up an actual use for such a grading system. While still requiring the MTA to foot half the bill for this misguided and useless idea, Domenic M. Recchia, head of the Finance Committee, suggested that such a system would allow council members to better determine if discretionary funds should go toward subway station cleanliness. Think of it as a halfway house toward an adopt-a-station program I’ve mentioned on and off over the years.
But let’s pause for a second and figure out what’s really going on here. Why would the Council even be in such a position to bloviate? It wants “accountability” from the agency on why it needs a fare hike next year — something the authority has provided in droves — and the MTA wants more funding from the city. As the latter won’t happen, the Council decided to do all it could do to mock the authority in public. Hence, letter grades for the subway system.
The City Council will never embrace taking responsibility for New York City Transit. It doesn’t want the financial or political headaches that come with such control. And so we are left with a situation where the Council will not provide proper oversight or the money the MTA needs to clean their obviously dirty stations. We just get bad — and silly — ideas.