MTA will appeal ruling but begin public hearing process as well
The legal dispute over the MTA’s desires to close token booths will continue. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)
A New York State Supreme Court judge in Manhattan has ordered the MTA to keep station booths open and staffed until the Authority can hold public hearings on the closures. This decision — a legal blow to the MTA — came nearly a month to the day after another judge issued a temporary restraining order that kept station booths open. The authority, which says it will both appear and follow the ruling, will now have to hold public hearings on the station booth closures before proceeding with the dismissal of 222 workers and the shuttering of over 100 booths.
The MTA first proposed closing the station booths in 2009 when a budget shortfall emerged. At the time, the authority held the hearings legally required under New York Public Authorities Law § 1205(5). When Albany approved the payroll tax package that guaranteed funding for the MTA, the authority decided to eliminate positions and close the booths through attrition rather than layoffs. Yet, when an $800 million deficit emerged in 2010, the authority announced its decision to implement layoffs but this time without a public hearing.
In its legal argument, the Transport Workers Union Local 100 challenged the decision to eschew hearings. The TWU alleged a violation of the Public Authorities Law that requires the MTA to hold a hearing when it is contemplating “any complete or partial closing of a passenger station…or any means of public access to such facility.” The judge agreed with the TWU that these closures proposed for 2010 warranted a new hearing even though they were materially identical to those put forward last year.
Taking an expansive view of the MTA’s requirements under the Public Authorities Law, Judge Saliann Scarpulla ordered the MTA to maintain the booths until hearings could be held. “As of May 2009, [the MTA] had informed the public that the earlier plan for mass subway token booth and customer assistant kiosk changes was not going to be implemented,” she wrote. “Once the respondents decided, almost a year later, to reimplement that plan, new hearings were required.”
In a sense, though, Judge Scarpulla’s order hinges almost exclusively on this technicality. Because the MTA is cutting station agents through firings after saying it would so through attrition 12 months ago, it must hold another hearing. After all, as the TWU alleged, the “concerns of the citizenry” could have shifted in time.
In a separate part of the opinion, however, Judge Scarpulla refuses to side with the TWU as it attempts to question the overall safety impact of the station agent dismissals. The TWU had wanted a judge to find that the booth closures would violate the MTA’s “statutory obligation to promote the safety and convenience of the public.” Since the MTA has traditionally been granted wide latitude in its operations, the final decision to close the booths is not, said the judge, “subject to judicial review.”
So where then does this decision leave the MTA? First, the authority does not have to rehire the 250 station agents who were fired in early May. As long as the authority maintains staffing levels necessary to keep the booths open, it can do what it pleases with its employees. Second, the MTA can go ahead with dismissals and closures after it follows the legally mandated procedures as set forth in the Public Authorities Law. In other words, after going through another public comment and hearing process, the Board can still vote to close the stations and still vote to fire the workers.
This ruling, then, is nothing more than a procedural and fiscal thorn in the MTA’s side, and it will probably cost $100,000 a day plus the expenses for the public hearings for the MTA to comply with it.
In response, the MTA expressed is displeasure over the ruling and vowed to both appeal and start the lengthy public hearing process. “The MTA is disappointed in today’s ruling that we cannot proceed with slated subway booth and kiosk closures without repeating the public hearing process. These closures were necessitated by the MTA’s dire financial situation, and the need for the savings they generate remains,” the authority said in a statement this afternoon. “While we disagree with the ruling and intend to appeal, we will be proceeding on a parallel track with the public hearing process. With that in mind, an MTA Board meeting will be scheduled for next week at which the Board will be asked to authorize the public hearing process to move this vital cost-saving initiative forward.”
I am still awaiting comment from the TWU.
After the jump, a copy of the court’s decision is embedded.
A tip of the hat goes to NBC New York for providing this decision.