Home MTA Absurdity Dumb ideas, but no more money, from the City Council

Dumb ideas, but no more money, from the City Council

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

You may also like


George May 24, 2012 - 12:59 am

I’m wondering what grade the Bowery station would get.

Brian May 24, 2012 - 1:10 am


SEAN May 24, 2012 - 6:46 pm

No! a J.

John-2 May 24, 2012 - 1:59 am

They’d probably be better off doing any sort of grading based on the overall trunk and branch lines, since that would allow for a little more united pressure from one specific area on the MTA, if that section has a series of problem stations.

But as noted, Elvis left the building in the wake of the 1966 transit strike as to how much control the Council has over subway operations, since the ineptitude of the Lindsay Administration gave Rockefeller the opening he was looking for to take over the system (and responsibilities) from the city while bumping Robert Moses out of the way to justify the move by seizing the TBTA and it’s toll revenues. By abdicating its responsibility to handle the city’s mass transit operations and finances 44 years ago, the city also gave up the right to do much of anything about future flaws.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines May 24, 2012 - 8:50 am

[…] Opening Themselves to Ridicule From Pundits and Straphangers (Second Ave Sagas, […]

TP May 24, 2012 - 9:24 am

I don’t think this is such a bad idea. Why would having access to more information be a bad thing? Especially if, as the WSJ article notes, the MTA is already collecting this information every month, but just not publishing it on a station-specific basis? How much would it really cost to make them letter grades and post them publicly?

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.

Well, you can move. When I moved to New York I considered access to transit when I was looking at apartments, as I’m sure most people do. Cleanliness was a small part of it. Wouldn’t it be nice for real estate brokers to be able to boast about the fact that an apartment is next to a station with an “A” cleanliness grade?

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.

But we have no publicly available metric to objectively measure grime, trash and rats. Sanitation shouldn’t be a matter of opinion. Giving stations a letter grade for cleanliness elevates the concept from “eww this is gross” to “this station isn’t meeting expectations in this area.” Why not make the Line General Manager embarrassed that his stations are the worst in the system, and motivated to actually clean them? (Seriously though, will they allow volunteers to clean the stations themselves? I’d love to give the columns of my local station a good wipe down so I don’t accidentally get black marks on my clothes when I lean against one.)

R. Graham May 24, 2012 - 9:44 am

Measure grime, trash and rats? Here’s the problem, if you have any of those it’s a fail. There’s no passing for it. So hence the point of the need of wasting money. (and the fact that they are asking the MTA to waste money on this) In all honesty every station fails. The mobile wash unit goes to every station and was just at my home station this week and it’s already back to it’s grimy conditions. Weather has played a part but the people are disgusting, hence that same question again. Why are we wasting money to tell the people that a station is nasty when the people are responsible?

TP May 24, 2012 - 11:38 am

We need better mobile wash units then, or cheaper ones that can be used more often. How about automatic cleaning systems of some sort? What are best practices for this? What do other transit systems use to keep theirs cleaner? We’re always going to have people making messes everywhere. That isn’t an excuse to live in filth. My apartment gets dirty if I don’t clean and dust regularly. If I leave my windows open, the sills become coated in the same black soot that covers the surfaces of everything in the subway system. It just needs to be cleaned, and it isn’t. If I have guests over for a party and they make a mess I curse ever inviting them over, but then I clean up. I don’t resign myself to living with it.

R. Graham May 24, 2012 - 12:53 pm

See the problem with comparing other systems to NY’s has and will always be perspective. The problem mainly is people, but how many people do other systems move compared to NYCT?

Now I doubt anyone is resigned to living with it and if there are automatic cleaning systems out there. When do you get to use them really? It would seem to me that a system like that would be more for the transportation networks that are not 24/7 like NYCT is, which is also another side of why we have more of a cleaning issue than most others.

The other side of the coin is the fact that the mobile wash unit is deployed with unionized workers of the TWU. The TWU will fight for those jobs. Automated systems make those jobs needless. Hence making the combination of workers and automation a costly combination when you consider you have to maintain the automated systems. There are many factors at play as to why we have the problems we have, but mainly the system is uniquely large with the most people transported daily worldwide.

Larry Littlefield May 24, 2012 - 9:35 am

Republican and Democratic politicians over 50 years old only have the right to evaluate the MTA based on the decisions they have made and the priorities they hold.

Are the tax-free pensions being paid? Is the tax-free interest on all the debts, generally held by the wealthy, being paid?

That’s all these placard-holding BS artists have the right to talk about.

David Brown May 24, 2012 - 10:53 am

I can think of a few letter grades: 1: Penn Station: (8th Avenue Part) A+. 2: Delancy St: B+ (You have to go down a flight of stairs then up, to exit from the J & M Brooklyn Bound platform). 3: West 4th St F (I wish I could give it even lower). 4: 14th St: (F & M Portion) F (7th ave IRT portion B. 5: Grand St:B 6: Bowery: F 7: Broadway-Lafayette: Inc. 8: Archer Ave JFK: A. 9: Atlantic Ave (ENTIRE COMPLEX): A+ One of the best in NYC. 10: East Broadway: D (As in dirty (Always has been)).

Bolwerk May 24, 2012 - 12:11 pm

I think stupid is just it. Too many NYC Councilmembers are stupid – and not just figuratively. Vacca is literally stupid in every sense of the word: unable to reason, reactionary, prone to low-effort/selfish thinking, not especially intellectually curious. Christine Quinn is also a bit of a twit, an authoritarian with the social mores of a soccer mom, and she’s one of the brighter lights in that chamber.

Ed May 24, 2012 - 12:58 pm

This attracted over twenty comments on Gothamist, none of them receptive to the idea.

Anon May 24, 2012 - 6:35 pm

This has something to do with the suggestion a couple months ago that GCT floors are so clean that you can eat off of them

Duke May 24, 2012 - 7:45 pm

Here’s an idea: if we want to spend some extra money on dealing with station cleanliness, how’s about we spend it on actually cleaning the stations?

This is political insanity at its finest. Next we should pull funding from the homeless shelters and spend it instead on a study grading homeless people on their hygiene.


Leave a Comment