Subway stations should have letter grades, too: pols

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First, restaurants and schools - now city pols want to give subway stations letter grades.

Councilman Peter Koo made the suggestion to MTA officials during a joint hearing between the council's finance and transportation committees Wednesday, after griping about conditions at the nearby Park Place station.

"We grade the restaurants, right? A, B, C, D. So we should rate all the stations in the MTA system," Koo (D-Queens) said.

Transportation chair James Vacca was quick to second Koo's impromptu proposal, exclaiming, "That's a good idea!"

"Why can't we rate stations on cleanliness, rats, water, garbage, graffiti?" he asked. Vacca said he would draft a resolution to call for the grading system along with Koo and Domenic Recchia, who heads the council's finance committee.
The council could not pass legislation requiring the agency to post grades, since the MTA is a state agency.

"If they're going to raise the fares 7.5%, well then dammit: We're entitled to accountability," Vacca said.

Recchia (D-Brooklyn) suggested the MTA follow a similar grading system to the Department of Health, which grades failing eateries more frequently.

"If they get a 'D' or an 'F,' we want to make sure that they're going to come back immediately and upgrade it so it could be an 'A' station," he said, adding, "I think council members would be willing to put money into the budget to get their stations cleaned up."

The MTA quickly rejected the council's station grading idea, saying it already provides monthly statistics about the appearance, equipment and information on its subway lines and the stations - which are broken down borough by borough, not by station as the council members said they want.

"The MTA already publishes an array of statistics on station cleanliness" spokesman Kevin Ortiz said. "We leave it to our customers to determine for themselves the cleanliness of a station without the need for letter grades."

The councilmembers suggested the MTA should conduct the tests and grade themselves on their own - unlike restaurants, which are graded by city inspectors. The council also said the cash-strapped MTA - not the city - should pay for the tests.

Recchia added that if the tests were done in an unsatisfactory manner, the council could consider holding hostage some of the $786 million the city gives to the MTA.

"If we see that [the grading system] is not open and transparent and it's not truthful, then we could always hold back funding for the MTA in the budget," he said.

A City Council spokesman did not return messages for comment last night to say if the council has the legal authority to withhold money from the MTA.

The idea quickly formed during a testy meeting Wednesday afternoon. Council members were annoyed with statements made earlier in the day by MTA chairman Joseph Lhota, who questioned the necessity of having MTA representatives attend a budget hearing.

"There is no discretionary funding that is coming from the city," Lhota said, adding that the money the agency gets is mandated by law or contract. "We are a great place to put discretionary money," Lhota added.

Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign, which has done its own station inspections, said letter grading might hold the MTA more accountable for station conditions.

"I think they could do it, and maybe the council should fund it," Russianoff said, adding that the MTA already looks for signage and proper garbage disposal, like restaurant inspectors do.

But Russianoff acknowledged that some straphangers are stuck with their local subway station even if it is filthy, since there may not be any other alternative.

The letter grades, he said, would be "more like a scarlet letter. It would motivate transit officials to try to manage their way to doing the best job they could to keep the stations clean."

Riders said letter grades would have little impact on their travels.

"I'm more concerned about the service," said Malik Perry, 19, of the Bronx as he waited for a No. 2 train at Penn Station. He rated the station a "B+" in cleanliness, saying, "It could be better."

Jake Rogal, a film production assistant and West Village resident who was waiting for a downtown train at the Times Square station said the subways are "all gross."

"My route is my route no matter what," Rogal, 24, said. "I wouldn't fully reroute just to get a cleaner route."

Follow reporter Marc Beja on Twitter: @marc_beja

Tags: News , MTA , Marc Beja

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