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August 28, 2001

Judge Delays Effort to Close Token Booths


New York City Transit must hold public hearings before it can close token booths or reduce their hours at 53 subway stations across the city, a judge ruled yesterday, deciding in favor of rider advocates who said the agency was acting arrogantly.

The judge, Justice Diane A. Lebedeff of State Supreme Court in Manhattan, said the transit agency ignored a state law that specifically called for hearings before carrying out a permanent "partial closing" of a station or before limiting "any means of public access." The judge's order puts off the closings only temporarily, because the transit agency could close the stations even after public hearings are held.

The agency, the subsidiary of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority responsible for New York City subways and buses, had announced the cutbacks as a means of saving money, arguing that it was merely changing the way it collected fares and did not need to hold hearings. Starting in September, it planned to remove token clerks from 18 subway entrances and reduce staffing hours at 35 others, involving 7.5 percent of the subway system's 709 token booths, the judge said.

Many of the normal turnstiles would be closed off, because there would be no attendant to keep people from jumping them. Riders could still use MetroCard vending machines and pass through the tall, clawlike turnstiles that look like revolving doors.

But Justice Lebedeff took note of riders who find those narrow turnstiles impassable: parents with infants and strollers, shoppers with packages, people with crutches or walkers, and people with guide dogs.

"To such persons, `access' at a subway entrance only through a high turnstile is no access at all and constitutes an effective closing of that given entrance," the judge said.

She also seemed to say that there was something downright un-New York about not having hearings, particularly in a city not known for shyness.

"New York City has a well-placed and profound respect for public hearings, specifically because interested individuals and organizations do often provide insights, perspectives and constructive suggestions which may not have been considered by the agency and its planners," she said.

The judge noted that changes in station access had usually been the subject of public hearings.

A New York City Transit spokesman, James Anyansi, said last night that the agency was still deciding whether to appeal the ruling to the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court.

Rider advocates hailed the decision for its practical effects and also as a moral victory in efforts to bring to heel what they see as an arrogant and unresponsive agency.

"The people who run the agency have been doing a bad job listening to their riders," said Gene Russianoff, staff lawyer for the Straphangers Campaign, a transit watchdog group that was one of the organizations that sued the authority. "It's a major reason why we brought the lawsuit," he said. "It wasn't just about token booths. If you're going to close somebody's token booth, for God's sakes, you've got to talk to the community."

As examples of what he called the transit agency's arrogance, Mr. Russianoff also cited proposed cutbacks at the Grand Street station in Chinatown and on the G line service reductions that were modified after complaints. He also said that Lawrence G. Reuter, the president of New York City Transit, used to meet four or five times a year with rider advocacy groups, but the practice had been ended three years ago.

Mr. Anyansi declined to comment on the criticism.

Other plaintiffs included Citizen Action of New York, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, ACORN, and the Transport Workers union, Local 100, which represents the city's 3,500 token booth clerks.

Opponents of the cutbacks also argued that fewer clerks mean fewer eyes and ears to discourage crime, and that was on the mind of riders at some of the stations that would be affected.

"We need someone down there," said Kali Christian, 21, of the Bronx, a laborer standing outside the Myrtle-Willoughby Aves. station on the G line in Brooklyn. "It's more safer for myself and everybody who takes the train. What would have happened if I were to go down there right now and get robbed? Who's going to see? Who's going to call the police?"

Farther along the line, at the Bedford-Nostrand Avenues stop, which is also on the list of cutbacks, one rider said the ruling gave the authority's managers what they deserved.

"They're being arrogant," said Ramon Medina, 24, an unemployed truck driver who lives in Park Slope in Brooklyn. "They're being condescending. They're not using their heads. They're not using common sense. They should have had a meeting and talked to the people who use the train every day. I'm sure they would have told them the same thing I'm saying right now."

But Mr. Russianoff noted that after hearings in 1991, a time of fiscal austerity, service cuts including station closings were abandoned.

"It's not just some technical, pointless exercise," he said.

The law cited by Justice Lebedeff, the Public Authorities Law, was enacted in 1977 during another, more serious, fiscal crisis. The subway system was laboring under heavy debt, and the transit agency came up with a plan to save money by closing stations. The law was passed after a public outcry that public comment should precede any closings.

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