Keep the booths open: MTA plans to close token booths will hit Black and Latino neighborhoods hardest

Will the city’s Black and Latino communities be hardest hit by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) plans to close 177 token booths? It certainly looks like it, according to a map prepared for The New York Amsterdam News by Darlyne Lawson, vice president of the Transit Workers Union’s stations department, which shows stations targeted for closing in certain sections of Brooklyn, the Bronx and Upper Manhattan.

On Monday, Feb. 3, when Lawson addressed about 300 Brooklyn residents at meeting of Community Board 3, she held up a subway map showing the cluster of some 20 stations targeted for booth closings in the Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, Fort Greene and Williamsburg sections of the borough. The residents were livid.

City Councilman Al Vann was livid, too. “I thought it was ridiculous. It will not be tolerated.” Noting government’s tendency to “follow the lines of least resistance,” Vann said, “The MTA is assuming people won’t respond, but we expect people to turn out in great numbers at the hearings. We’ll not allow the MTA to close those toll booths on the A and B lines.”

While they are by no means the only closings in these boroughs, similar clusters of token-booth closings appear in Harlem, Washington Heights and the Bronx. In the Morrisania and Mott Haven sections of the Bronx, closings include token booths at six consecutive stations along the No. 6 IRT line at Brook Avenue, Cypress Avenue, East 143rd Street, St. Mary’s Street, East 149th Street, and Longwood Avenue. Not too far away, on the No. 2 and No. 5 lines, the MTA proposes closing Prospect Avenue, Simpson Street, and 174th Street.

Harlem closings include four consecutive stations on the A, B, and D lines: Cathedral Parkway (110th Street), 116th Street, 125th Street and 135th Street; on the No. 2 and No. 3 lines: 116th Street, 125th Street and 135th Street; on the No. 1 line: Cathedral Parkway (110th Street), 137th Street, 145th Street and 157th Street; as well as booths on the nos. 4, 5, and 6 lines at the 110th and 116th Street stations.

City Councilman Jose Serrano expressed strong opposition to the proposed closings in the Bronx. “Unfortunately, these areas have issues with crime, and having a human being in a token booth gives people a certain level of comfort,” Serrano said. “Without token-agents, these stations will be desolate and a lot of people will feel unsafe. I don’t like it.” Serrano expects a large turnout of Bronx residents at the Community Board 1 hearing at the Bronx County Building on Feb. 18.

City Councilman Bill Perkins charged the MTA with “obviously targeting communities of color as the places where they’re going to eliminate these services, effectively creating crime hazards and severe inconvenience.” Perkins vowed to fight against these plans adding, “This gives us reason [to believe] that the MTA needs to be looked at closely to find out just who makes these kinds of decisions.”

“The MTA is just arrogant,” Lawson said. “They close stations in neighborhoods where they don’t think people are going to complain.”

The Transit Workers Union (TWU) is just one of many groups working to prevent the token-booth closings. Other advocates include the New York Public Interest Group’s Straphangers Campaign, the various community boards, a number of other community-based organizations, and representatives of Americans with Disabilities.

In flyers demanding the city “Keep the Booths Open!” the Straphangers Campaign insists on the important role station agents play in keeping city subway stations safe, calling the workers “the subway’s eyes and ears.” The Straphangers campaign says, “Riders know where to go in emergencies and station agents can summon help.” Every year, station agents activate their emergency booth communication system more than 60,000 times, obtaining police officers or emergency medical technicians. In addition, station agents deter fare evasion, vandalism and graffiti, as well as summon help for the homeless. And, the TWU proudly points out, station agents also play an important role in the Transit Authority’s customer relations.

The Straphangers Campaign spokesperson, Senior Attorney Gene Russianoff, feels there is a pretty good chance of winning the battle to save the token booths but stresses the need for strong community response. Recalling the campaign’s 1996 lawsuit against MTA charging violation of Title VI of the Federal Civil Rights Laws, Russianoff added, “I think in this instance there seem to be legal questions both with regards to the quality of the notice and to the impact on the disabled riders.”

Russianoff was referring to MTA plans to install the High Entry/Exit Turnstiles (HEET) at many of the targeted stations. These HEET devices, many advocates insist, will create serious problems for people with disabilities, the elderly and women with baby carriages; and might pose safety hazards. As for the negative impact of the subway token booth closings on Black, Latino and Asian communities, Russianoff said the campaign believes that this is true of not only those areas but of the entire city: “A disproportionate number of the people in this city who are transit-dependent are poor people, people of color.”

The MTA insists that while the booth closings might affect only one side of a subway platform, there will be a staffed token booth on the opposite platform. Russianoff said, “In some of these stations, the token agent on the opposite platform might as well be in Siberia.”

A spokesman for the MTA also countered, “Most of these booths being closed are part-time booths where there is only someone on duty between 6 and 9 a.m.” and that “no stations will be without a full-time clerk.” As for the safety questions being raised, the MTA insists there is “no validity to safety concerns.” The MTA spokesperson refused to comment on the presence of clusters of token-booth closings in certain neighborhoods, saying no comments would be made until after the public hearing process was completed.

The Straphangers Campaign has been critical of the MTA’s failure to be very responsive to the community. Pointing to the hearings, Russianoff noted the MTA is required by law to give the community boards 30-days notice of proposed service changes. “They got as close to the 30 days as possible. The MTA knew for months they were going to do this, but they held off until the last minute. In other words, they met the letter but not the spirit of the law,” Russianoff said.

The MTA has scheduled only one hearing per borough. The dates and times are as follows: Manhattan – Wednesday, Feb. 5, 4 p.m., the Roosevelt Hotel; Bronx – Tuesday, Feb. 18, 4 p.m., Bronx County Building (Rotunda); Queens – Wednesday, Feb. 19, 6 p.m., Queens Borough Hall; Staten Island – Wednesday, Feb. 12, 4 p.m., Susan E. Wagner High School; Brooklyn – Thursday, Feb. 6, 4 p.m., New York College of Technology.

Advocates urge city residents in areas hardest hit by the MTA’s plans attend hearings.

Those who are unable to attend the hearings (which sometimes run as late as 9 p.m.) should visit the MTA’s Web site and register their objections. For the first time, the MTA has set up this interactive feature, which is apparently getting tremendous response, although they will not disclose the nature of that response. The MTA’s Web site address is www.mta.nyc.ny.us

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