The MTA Plots to Remove All Station Agents

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The following is a guest article by John Rozankowski, PhD

[Make sure to sign the petition:  Station Agents Must Remain at NYC Subway Entrances]

A feeling of security is a vital issue for most people and determines where they live, where they send their children to school, etc. In subway station entrances, the station agents provide this feeling of security and the MTA is scheming to remove all of them.

According to the New York Daily News, the MTA is already floating the idea of closing the remaining token booths at 25 stations as an “experiment.”1

As Bronx subway riders are fully aware, the conditions at the entrances where station agents have been removed are a showcase for retaining them.  These entrances are gathering places for drug dealers, drug users, gangs, the homeless and other menacing individuals.  Garbage quickly accumulates accompanied by a very pungent odor.  In some instances, riders are forced to pay a fare of $2.75 and even $3.00 when extortionists gum up all of the turnstiles, except one through which they swipe their victims.

Crimes, mostly theft, are taking place although many are not reported and there is plenty of verbal harassment.  What decent citizen would want to go through there? Who would send their son or daughter into such a dangerous environment?  The critical feeling of security is completely destroyed and in general, riders use these entrances only during rush hours when there is some safety in numbers.

In stark contrast, a staffed entrance is a completely different world.  Unsavory characters are absent and the people feel safe.  Particularly popular are the off-hour waiting areas.  Riders wait under the watchful eye of the station agent and then proceed to the subway car with the train operator or the conductor.  Without station agents, the off-hour waiting areas would be useless!

Now, rumors are plentiful that the MTA wants to get out of the fare collecting business which would mean the end for station agents. Without station agents, safety would be severely compromised and the overall feeling of security would be forever destroyed.  When people no longer feel secure in a building or neighborhood, they move.  If there were no station agents at any entrance, there would be no escape!

Latest from the MTA

Those familiar with transit are aware that the MTA wants to change the MetroCard in the near future.  The agency contends that the present MetroCard is obsolete and the vending machines, which the MTA states are difficult and expensive to maintain, will soon come to the end of their useful life.

The MTA plans to create a new card called “tap & go.”  The big improvement here is that this card would be scanned rather than swiped so that entering the subway or boarding the bus would be much faster.  This is a good idea which could be done relatively quickly.

The MTA, however, wants to go further.  An unknown amount of public money is being spent to develop an “open payment” system in which the fare would be paid by credit cards, debit cards, and pre-paid fare cards. These pre-paid cards would be available in news-stands, pharmacies and other stores. Whether “unlimited rides” would continue or whether station agents or even new vending machines would sell them are open questions.  It possible that a rider would no longer be able to purchase a fare card at a subway station!  In this way, the MTA would be out of the fare collection business.2

An Ominous Trend for Station Agents

The easiest way to abolish a job is to take away duties from the job-holder until the worker has nothing to do and the job becomes obsolete.  The duties of station agents have been heading in this direction for years.  Consider:

A station agent can’t sell a one-way ride, provide receipts and process credit card payments.  Only the vending machine does this.  The height of absurdity is the fact that a station agent can’t replace a defective MetroCard even though they can see the exact amount on the Card.  Riders have to fill out a form and wait a month for a replacement.

Unknown to most New Yorkers, the MTA has been installing blue lighted “help kiosks” in which a rider presses an intercom button to ask for directions, etc.  The “help kiosks” would be connected to an MTA Information Center.  This is the MTA’s solution to riders’ concerns that with the removal of station agents, no one would answer their questions!

The “help kiosks” can be seen at the IRT Brooklyn Bridge and 23rd St. stations.  The cost of installing these devices at these two stations was $300,000.00.  Plans are in place to expand them to 102 more stations and eventually all stations!  Imagine the total cost for 468 stations.  Yet the MTA claims that it’s saving money by removing the station agents!

The conclusion is obvious if pre-paid fare cards are sold outside the system and “help kiosks” would answer riders’ questions, what duties would remain for the station agent? Just about none and the MTA would have the perfect excuse to remove them.3

Lessons from History

How would the MTA remove the rest of the station agents?  A brief look at the past reveals the answer.

When the original MetroCard arrived in 1997, there were already rumors that the MTA’s ultimate objective was to remove the station agents.  Very few paid attention until the MTA suddenly announced that 177 token booths would be closed in late 2002.

Keep the Token Booths Open coalitions were quickly formed and the public overwhelmed the public hearings held in early 2003.  As a result the MTA reduced the number of proposed closings to 62.  The matter was taken to court and the MTA ultimately won.

The MTA waited a year for the coalitions to disperse and in late 2004, suddenly announced the closing of 164 more token booths.  To dampen opposition, the agency shifted some agents to outside these booths as “roving customer service reps.” Then the MTA closed the 164 booths in the summer of 2005 by closing a few in each borough every month throughout the summer.  The MTA demolished the closed token booths in breath-taking speed to be able to plead poverty at any attempts to restore them. Would the agency attend to other matters so quickly!

The “roving customer service reps” lasted until 2010 when the MTA suddenly announced their dismissal to save money?  This is the same trick that the MTA plans to use again with the 25 stations and it’s critical not to fall for it.4   Station agents must continue to sell subway rides from token booths.  Re-deploying them as customer service reps outside the booths is a scam and a step in the removal process.

The pattern is very clear:

1.  The MTA hopes that the public will be oblivious to the warning signs.

2.  The MTA will make a sudden “proclamation” usually in conjunction with a fare increase thus giving people no time organize a major protest.

3.  The MTA will wait for any protests to subside and carry out their objective.

4.  The agency will close a few booths at a time in widely scattered locations throughout the City to impede the formation of any organized protest.

5.  The agency will redeploy some agents as customer service reps for show, only to dismiss them later.

This Is the Time for Preventive Action

Removing the remaining station agents would be the greatest blunder in New York City transit history.  It would place riders at the mercy of criminals and forever destroy a feeling of security in riding the subways.

Waiting and hoping for the best is not a solution.  The thinking that the MTA would never do this is an excursion into fantasy.  The agency is clearly planning it NOW!

Clearly what the MTA fears the most is a massive, organized city-wide protest. Whether through a task force appointed by the Borough President or through grass roots organizing, the people must plan this kind of campaign.

Locally elected officials can’t wait on the sidelines until the “surprise” announcement. The best place to begin is in the City Council. The Public Safety and Transportation Committees should call a joint hearing, demand straight answers and force the MTA to stop spending our money on results that we do not want!

With respect to any ideas of removing or redeploying station agents, New York City must send the MTA a very clear message: DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT!

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Notes

1 On November 6, 2013, the New York Daily News revealed that in contract negotiations with TWU Local 100, the MTA is proposing a pilot program for 25 stations where the station agent will be placed outside and the token booth demolished.

2 In order to get the latest information on the MTA’s plans for fare collecting, I attended a “Problem Solvers” session at the NYC Transit Museum on March 19, 2014.  Ben Kabak from the 2nd Avenue Sagas blog was the host and Michael DeVitto, Vice President & Program Executive for Fare Payment, from the MTA made the presentation.

3 No oral questions from the audience were permitted.  Questions had to be written on an index card.  My question was “what will be the role of the station agents in the new fare payment system?”  Kabak did ask it and DeVitto ducked by answering that the MTA Department of Subways will determine the ultimate fate of the station agents.

4 Only a small number of stations without any agents would be enough to set a legal precedent making it easier to remove the remaining agents.

About John Rozankowski, PhD

Although born in Brooklyn, John Rozankowski, PhD spent most of his life in the Bronx and received his Ph.D. in history from Fordham University at Rose Hill.

After selling his rental property, John became a community activist fighting against the new Yankee Stadium, the term limit extension, the Kingsbridge Armory Shops-in-the-Armory proposal and for Bronx Borough President Reuben Diaz’s living wage campaign.  Last year, he was a volunteer in the Letitia James for Public Advocate campaign and continues to campaign in Queens for the reactivation of the Rockaway line.

John has a very strong interest in mass transit issues especially relating to the subways and buses.  The outer boroughs have always been shafted and it’s high time that Bronxites did something about it.

In addition, he is a writer and blogger on New York City issues.”

Dr Rozankowski has lived in the Bronx for 58 years and currently resides in the Bedford Park neighborhood of the Bronx.

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