Volume 23, Number 11 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | July 21 - 27, 2010
Subway booth closures create controversy, safety concerns
BY John Bayles
Last Friday city council Members were joined by members of the Transit Workers Union Local 100 at City Hall to discuss the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s plans to close or reduce hours at a number of subway station booths. The action would also result in the layoffs of 220 station agents.
In Lower Manhattan, both the Wall Street and the Fulton Street/Broadway-Nassau Street stops would see closures. Those two stops, in particular, have city council member Margaret Chin wondering exactly what the MTA could be thinking.
“In the tragic event of another attack in our community, these workers would be crucial in directing passengers to safety. Closing the booths at the Fulton St./Broadway-Nassau and Wall Street stops is particularly worrisome,” said Chin at a recent public hearing on the issue. “These areas of Lower Manhattan remain prime terror targets, with the subways themselves a likely target. Imagine the grizzly scenario: hundreds of passengers stranded in the subway stops, with no cell phone service — and now no means of communicating with authorities.”
The public hearings are now over, and the only remaining hope to stem the booth closures is passage of a bill by the New York State Assembly. On Friday, most city council members were hopeful Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver would take up their cause. But Silver seems more concerned with the possibility of even higher fare increases should the authority not be able to trim its deficit via moves such as closing station booths. Fare increases are already set for the beginning of 2011.
“Our public transit system is the lifeblood of our city, and ensuring the safety of riders is a top priority for me. I fully understand the important role that token booth clerks play in helping to provide security in subway stations,” the Speaker said on Tuesday. “However, I am concerned that this legislation would force the MTA to make up lost savings through deeper service cuts or a higher fare. The simple fact is New Yorkers cannot afford another fare hike or more cuts in service.”
In total, 89 booths are subject to be closed in this latest round of cuts. The city council members pointed out that in addition to the possible layoffs of 220 station workers, the MTA has already laid off 260 station agents due to its budget crisis.
“The MTA has made a series of difficult choices to address an $800 million budget shortfall caused by deteriorating tax revenues and State budget cuts, including laying off employees at all levels of our organization,” said MTA media relations spokesperson Kevin Ortiz.
Many of the council members criticized the authority for “sitting on” $185 million in federal stimulus funds. However the MTA claims that amount is not correct and the allotted funds cannot be used to avert the booth closures.
“While some have argued that $80 million — not $185 million as the union claims — in stimulus funding could be transferred to the operating budget, this funding has been assigned to critical capital projects that are creating jobs and investing in the MTA’s tracks, stations and other infrastructure,” said Ortiz.
Chin acknowledged as much on Tuesday but responded by citing the importance of the bill’s passage.
“The MTA is right that they have already allocated the funding for capital projects. That’s why we’re urging the New York State Senate and Assembly to pass [the bill], which mandates that the MTA transfer 10 percent of the $1.3 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus funding from its capital budget to its operating budget.”
T.W.U. Local 100 President John Samuelsen said at the press conference, “It is a travesty that Jay Walder and the other fat cats on the [MTA] board are sitting on this money.”
Samuelsen said MTA chairman Walder “doesn’t even ride the subway and when he does he has security.”
Security seemed to be the major concern on the steps of city hall last Friday. Council member Letita James brought up the ad campaign that is plastered in almost every train and on the walls of almost every subway station, “If you see something, say something,” which urges subway riders to report any strange packages or behavior to the agents at station booths.
District 1 leader Paul Newell said, “The token booths are an essential part of transportation security and when you take human eyes out of the equation we are less safe.”
“Crime is at record lows in the system thanks to the NYPD, which is responsible for policing the subways,” said Ortiz. “We continue to work closely with NYPD to ensure that our security decisions are aligned with their policing strategies. It’s important to have eyes and ears in the subway, but those eyes and ears can be cleaners, construction workers and our customers. Every station will continue to have a full-time booth manned 24/7 and intercoms so that customers can reach the booth.”
Also included in the bill is a clause that would require the MTA to keep the booths open until a comprehensive safety study is completed, as well as the creation of a New York City Transit Authority safety advisory panel.