Home Service Cuts A proposal to fix the station agents

A proposal to fix the station agents

by Benjamin Kabak

This station kiosk at the local BMT stop at Prince St. closed on May 13. (Photo via flickr user Tim Faracy of Bklyn)

Taxpayers have to shell out $40,000 per day as long as the MTA is not allowed to dismiss its station agents. At least, that’s what Jay Walder, MTA CEO and Chairman, estimated the costs were yesterday morning at an emergency meeting of the MTA Board held to address recent legal setbacks as the MTA looks to dismiss station agents and shutter kiosks throughout the system.

The saga of the station agents is one oft examined here at Second Ave. Sagas. Recently, the news has been coming fast and furious. On Friday afternoon, after issuing a temporary injunction against the station agent dismissals last month, a Manhattan Supreme Court judge ruled that the MTA could not shutter station kiosks without holding public hearings. Even though the authority had held these hearings a little more than a year ago on the same closure plans, because Albany averted the layoffs through a funding package and because the MTA had rescinded the cuts last year, the MTA had to host new hearings because “concerns of the citizenry” could have shifted in time.

On Tuesday afternoon, the same judge amended her order to require the MTA to reopen booths it had closed earlier this year. This order has been stayed pending an appeal. Meanwhile, the MTA Board voted unanimously to host four hearings — one per borough impacted by the booth closures — in mid-July before voting to cut station agents and close kiosks after that. It is, as Walder said today, a foregone conclusion, and the MTA is holding these hearings simply to comply with the court’s order.

“I wish I could tell you that that situation changed,” Walder said. “There’s no indication today, as we stand here or sit here today that the situation, the financial situation is any better than it was when we took this action months ago.”

As expected, the response from the TWU was one of protest. Union officials and Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio are going to host a press conference urging the MTA to hire back, albeit temporarily, the laid-off station agents (at a cost to the taxpayers), and the union continues to push its safety-first platform. “Digital signage and cameras can’t come to the aid of passengers, and can’t offer that immediate link to police and fire that our station agents provide,” TWU Local 100 president John Samuelsen said.

And that’s where we come in. For years, I’ve doubted the efficacy of the station agents. While they may act as a psychological security blanket for straphangers and a limited deterrent for some criminals, they’re not allowed to assist a victim in the midst of a crime and have little effect on those determined to do something bad. Maybe the solution lies in fixing the agents’ roles.

Let’s take a look at a station diagram. Below is a map of the 28th St. stop at on the 7th Ave. IRT.

This station today features just one agent and remaining station booth on the uptown platform in between the two staircases at 28th St. The booth and agent are in the fare-control area and thus have a limited view of the platform. Those people waiting on the platform between 28th and 27th Sts. aren’t visible to the station agent, and those waiting at the southern end of the station are a block and a half away. By sitting behind the turnstiles inside a booth, the agent is useless for anyone under duress at the far reaches of the platform, and this reality is acted out at stations around the system.

To solve this problem while actually increasing safety, the MTA and TWU should work together to change the job. Station agents should be positioned anywhere throughout the station. They should be available to help those at the fare-control area, but they should also patrol the platforms as a set of eyes. They aren’t police officers and don’t have law enforcement powers, but the agents could be used as a community watch for the subways. That has to be a stronger deterrent than the mostly useless agents out in force today.

The MTA, though, can’t enact this plan without more money, and the TWU has spent its efforts defending jobs instead of offering up better suggestions. We the taxpaying and subway-riding public instead will get a labor fight, more layoffs and the bill for what amounts to a legal technicality under the station agents can be eliminated through the proper procedures in six-to-eight weeks. It hardly seems worth it.

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7 comments

Alon Levy June 10, 2010 - 2:26 am

I don’t think this works. First, the skill sets involved are different. Second, the safety issue is a canard; it’s FUD spread by the union to try to save a few hundred jobs. Third and most importantly, station agents are possibly the only job title where New York City Transit isn’t overstaffed by Japanese standards. It has 3,150 agents and 468 stations; Toei has 951 agents and 106 stations. Maybe the real solution should be retraining the agents to act as pushers on the 4/5/6 and the L.

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Nathanael June 13, 2010 - 3:09 pm

Sounds like a good plan.

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JPN June 10, 2010 - 4:42 am

What is the average salary of a station agent and the average salary of an NYPD officer? I want to compare how many police officers can be hired in place of agents.

Station agents should be positioned anywhere throughout the station. They should be available to help those at the fare-control area, but they should also patrol the platforms as a set of eyes. They aren’t police officers and don’t have law enforcement powers, but the agents could be used as a community watch for the subways.

In other words, they should be like mall security guards. That’s a common sense answer, but I bet the people who signed up to be station agents didn’t think they would have to do those kinds of duties, like to catch and detain offenders.

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oscar June 10, 2010 - 8:22 am

“Digital signage and cameras can’t come to the aid of passengers”

Tell that to the rape victim who cried for help in vain while the agent watched the attack.

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Scott E June 10, 2010 - 9:19 am

The “changed job” description you describe seems to reflect the role of the red-vested station agents, who spent more time in the booth than roaming the station anyway.

It still boggles my mind why MTA Police Officers are used at the Bridge & Tunnel tollgates to deal with cash-paying drivers using E-ZPass lanes, while station agents try to make the subway a safer place. You’d think the reverse would be more more suitable. (Or even better, put automated toll enforcement like they’ve got everywhere else in the electronic-toll paying world).

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SEAN June 10, 2010 - 10:25 am

To paraphrase Bob Barker, ” help control the station agent population. Have your agent spade or nootered. Goodbye everybody!” LOL

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JAR June 10, 2010 - 4:16 pm

As a low-cost start, how about a sign in all remaining kiosk windows that informs people of the most important activities station agents can do?
-Sell Metrocards (cash only)
-Provide directions & maps (on a side note for this one, it would be nice if they had memo pads for writing directions – talking through the intercom and pointing doesn’t help visitors much)
-Provide service entrance gate access for disabled & those carrying luggage
-Explain weekend service changes affecting this station
-Call for assistance in emergencies

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