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Nolan blasts MTA plan to close token booths

Decrying an MTA proposal to close more than 122 subway booths across the city, state Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan (D-Ridgewood) and Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer began a petition drive at Queens Plaza subway station Monday to oppose the plan.

In Queens, eight booths would be closed on the A, E, F, G and J lines and the hours would be reduced at 67th Avenue (G), Union Turnpike (E) and 169th Street (F).

“They’re jeopardizing the safety of the riders,” Ferrer, a mayoral candidate, told a press conference before wielding a pen and putting down one of the first signatures. “It’s only a back-door way to cut this service and have it never return to the people and the riding public.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority board of directors approved a budget in December that called for the closure of numerous token booths, replacing live service with automated MetroCard machines already prevalent in subway stations across the city.

According to a letter sent July 2 by New York City Transit President Lawrence G. Reuter, the 122 part-time booths would eventually close “without affecting access at these locations,” since the MetroCard vending machines and high turnstiles would enable the entrances to remain open around the clock.

Reuter said the changes “are part of NYC Transit’s ongoing effort to modernize the way we do business in order to operate more efficiently and to better service our customers.” Many of the token booth agents would be reassigned to patrol the stations and help subway riders with customer service needs, he indicated in the letter.

The first phase will begin in late August with the permanent closure of 35 booths and the reduction of hours at 18 more, Public Advocate Mark Green announced at a press conference Tuesday.

City Councilwoman Kathryn Freed (D-Manhattan) scheduled a public hearing on the issue for Wednesday, when MTA officials were supposed to explain the proposal and city residents were expected to testify about its possible repercussions.

Ferrer and Nolan criticized the proposal as a threat to the safety of subway riders, who they said often rely on the watchful eye of token booth clerks to summon the police in the event of criminal activity or medical emergency.

“We are extremely distressed to learn that the MTA plans to close many of these booths in the belief that the MetroCard vending machines are an adequate replacement,” their petition reads. “They are not! We need the eyes, ears and human presence of our token booth agents.”

Certain groups of subway riders would be particularly affected by the change, Ferrer said, like people who can only afford to purchase a single token at a time. Furthermore, the change would cut down on services like the free distribution of subway maps and reduce riders’ ability to purchase subway fare with large bills, as machines only dispense limited change.

Ferrer also declared the MTA’s actions to be illegal in that the agency failed to hold public hearings about the change, which he said is required whenever severe cuts in services are proposed.

Nolan called on Mayor Rudy Giuliani to press his appointees to the MTA’s board of directors to reverse their decision.

But Bob Slovak, a New York City Transit spokesman, said “we don’t think it will have an impact on safety.”

Straphangers who ascended the steps at Queens Plaza subway station shortly after the press conference expressed immediate concern upon learning about the planned loss of clerks.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea for the simple fact that sometimes people need instruction to get to their destinations,” said Bronx resident Latoya Middleton.

She and other subway riders coming up from the R and G trains said the presence of a token clerk makes the station instantly safer by providing an immediate link to the authorities when crime occurs underground.

“(It’s) Not like a token booth clerk can really help you, but he can at least notify the police to help you,” Middleton said.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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