Does the city need someone to staff these ubiquitous booths?
When the MTA Board met yesterday to approve a reduced fare hike, the authority’s governing body also discussed, albeit briefly, the service cuts that made up part of the Doomsday budget. While the so-called cuts to the public — the elimination of subway lines, the planned reduction in off-peak, weekend and overnight service — are off the table, I was surprised to learn that the MTA still plans to axe hundreds of station agent jobs throughout the system.
As I reported in January, the plans to cut the station booths were a stealth move by the MTA. The agency stopped filling vacancies last month and is hoping to phase out around 800 station agents and shutter around 42 booths. While every station will still have an open, manned booth with a token clerk in it, the red vest program will end, and some one-way stations — an uptown platform with no crossover to a downtown train, for example — will have no employees at all.
During yesterday’s fare hike hearing, union leaders and station workers were apoplectic over these cuts. Andreeva Pinder, TWU Local 100’s VP for stations, defended the station agents. “I’ve meant the different between living and dying,” she said.
Pinder discussed how she and other station agents have helped people in need who come in off the streets, how they can aid confused passengers and how they contribute to the overall safety of the stations. She was pretty outraged by the cuts. “What in the hell are you thinking about?” she asked the MTA Board as she finished her remarks.
Kendra Hill, another station agent and TWU Local 100 member, defended the station agents as well. “A MetroCard vending machine cannot help a parent with a stroller. A turnstile cannot give directions to lost travelers,” she said.
Initially, my reaction to Hill one of cynicism. It’s true that a turnstile can’t give directions, but in my experiences, neither can many station agents. While Pinder tells a story about her helping people, the news covers the tales when station agents do nothing in the face of danger.
What if, though, those stories make headlines because they are far more compelling than the alternate? Who wants to read a feel-good piece in The Post that says “Station agent helps lost straphanger find her way”? Dale Hemmerdinger, the chairman of the MTA Board, put it best yesterday. “Unfortunately, it’s human nature to remember only when something doesn’t work, and in that regard, we’re a very easy target,” he said.
So maybe the station agents do help out, but maybe, as I’ve written in the past, they serve a deterrent purpose. Simply by putting someone in the station, the MTA can deter fare-jumpers and would-be criminals. Simply by alerting riders to the presence of someone with a uniform, the MTA is creating second thoughts.
Of course, this doesn’t seem to stop would-be taggers and graffiti artists. It doesn’t stop people from littering or relieving themselves in subway stations. It may stop major crimes, but quality-of-life violations continue unabated.
When the MTA cuts the station agents, they plan to keep open the turnstiles at unstaffed stations. Fare-jumping could become rampant, and the cuts — some $52 million annually — will be eroded by petty crime. Soon enough, we’ll find out if it’s worth it. I’m not so sure it is.