Statement of the New York City Transit Riders Council to the Committees on Public Safety and Transportation of the New York City Council
on Efforts to Keep New York City Transit Riders Safe
May 6, 2010
My name is William Henderson and I serve as Executive Director of the New York City Transit Riders Council (NYCTRC). The NYCTRC, which was established in 1981, is the legislatively mandated representative of New York City Transit riders, created by the State Legislature in 1981 to represent the users of the New York City Transit system. The Council consists of fifteen volunteer members appointed by the Governor upon the recommendation of the Mayor, the Public Advocate and the five Borough Presidents.
The New York City Transit Riders Council is very concerned about the safety of riders. We have been troubled by recent developments that we believe may compromise riders safety, but it is important to acknowledge where the system is and how far it has come. From 1997 to 2009, the number of major felonies in the subway system declined by over two-thirds, from over 6,200 per year to just over 2,000 per year. Declines in robberies and assaults have led the way, and a great deal of credit must be given to the NYPD Transit Bureau for its strategic use of limited resources to maximize its impact in the system. Obviously, there is still crime and riders need to be aware of their surroundings, but the system is a much safer place than it has been in the past. The question is, where is the Transit system going from here?
As we speak, New York City Transit is attempting to eliminate the jobs of 478 station agents in an effort to save $21 million a year. As of this morning, this action has been stayed by a temporary restraining order, but should the MTA prevail in court 76 station booths throughout the system will either be vacant or go from full-time to part-time operation. The Transit Riders Council believes that, without additional measures to increase communication and security, these changes will lead to rider frustration, rampant fare evasion and illegal selling of swipes to enter the system, and a significantly increased risk of crime at some locations.
The Council strongly opposes the closing of station booths and the removal of agents until there are alternative systems in place for riders to communicate with remaining agents and for activities in the unstaffed areas to be observed. The MTA has committed to providing intercom capabilities at unstaffed station entrances to allow riders to communicate with an agent in a staffed full time station booth, but this system is far from complete. We have been told recently that even the wiring needed for this communication is still incomplete, to say nothing of the installation of intercom boxes. Likewise, while video cameras would at least record activities in unstaffed areas, they are not yet in place throughout the system. We have heard that fully one-half of the cameras in place are not operational. At a time when these systems are not yet in place or working correctly, removing station agents from our subways is unacceptable.
The Council is also concerned with the protection of the riders from those who would choose the subway system as a venue for terrorist acts. In 2005 we were told that the subways would be protected by a high tech integrated electronic security system that would allow the MTA and law enforcement to more efficiently and effectively monitor the subway system and protect its users from harm. By spending $212 million for the installation of 1,000 cameras and 3,000 sensors throughout the system, we were told that we could stay one step ahead of those who would do us harm. Five years later, this vision has collapsed in a collection of lawsuits, claims, and counterclaims, and the MTA is working to make the pieces of the system that were installed operational. We are now told that the resulting system will achieve the same aims as the original plan, but may do it differently. We will reserve judgment on this count, but again, this system is not yet in place.
This takes us back to the issue of station agents. Before electronic security is in place, we shouldn’t be reducing the human presence that station agents provide in the subway system. It is true that they are not security guards or law enforcement personnel, but this does not mean that that the agents’ presence is not important. The station agents not only are there to observe and report potential threats, they are the people to whom riders turn to report suspicious conditions. Riders are being told “if you see something, say something,” but its getting less clear than ever to whom they should say something. Riders must be able to readily report what they have seen, but it’s not clear that this will be possible as station agents are eliminated.
So, are we doing enough to protect the straphangers? Much has been done, and the results of the actions that have been taken are impressive, but we can’t afford to go backwards and let the riders become less secure. We can’t even stand still, as there are constantly new threats and challenges out there. We need a serious public discussion of the actions that need to be taken to keep the Transit system safe and where the necessary resources will come from. We appreciate the New York City Council and its Public Safety and Transportation committees work in fostering this discussion and look forward to exploring these issues further with you.