MTA gets pushback on cashless booths 1

Subway booth clerks at the Forest Hills-71st Avenue station in Forest Hills haven’t handled cash transactions since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Talk by transit officials last week saying cash sales may end permanently isn’t sitting well with a range of critics.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority attempted to clarify its position from June 23 on the possibility of returning cash transactions to subway station booths in the wake of serious blowback from the public — and from the union representing booth clerks.

“To be clear, no decision has been made and no decision was announced yesterday regarding cash returning to station booths,” said acting Chief Communications Officer Tim Minton in a press release issued June 24. “The MTA continues to review logistics and other considerations associated with accepting cash payments at subway station booths post-pandemic.”

Multiple published sources quoted MTA Chief Safety Officer Pat Warren as saying that agency officials “currently do not plan to resume cash transactions in the booths.”

Cash transactions were banned back in March 2020 as the city and state prepared for the worst of Covid-19. Well over 100 MTA workers died of Covid during the pandemic.

In a statement from Transport Workers Local 100, which represents booth clerks, union President Tony Utano pointed out that cash transactions have resumed at the TA’s commuter railroads.

“Why have cash transactions resumed for suburban commuters who take Metro-North and [Long Island Rail Road] trains but not for subway riders?” Utano asked. “Does the MTA think subway riders aren’t worthy of the same level of customer service? Not having cash transactions at subway booths is an inconvenience — and an insult — to subway riders. These transactions should resume.”

Rider advocacy groups backed Utano’s stance.

“Governor Cuomo must let transit riders pay with cash at subway booths,” said Betsy Plum, executive director of the Riders Alliance. “With one-third of New York City residents unbanked or underbanked, cash remains essential for millions of people.”

“After a year of record ridership lows, the MTA should pull out all the stops to welcome riders back on board,” said Jaqi Cohen, campaign director for the New York Public Interest Research Group’s Straphangers Campaign. “By ending cash transactions at token booths, the authority is doing the opposite.”

Like Plum, Cohen said many low-income New Yorkers do not have access to the necessary electronic equipment for noncash payments. Both also said the MetroCard vending machines in subway stations are hardly the most reliable devices in the city.

An informal survey of riders in Forest Hills on Monday morning found they also want the MTA to restore the option.

“I use the booth a lot,” said Stacey Miller of Jamaica. “The clerks are very helpful.” Miller said she also has gotten damaged MetroCards replaced.

Marie Johnson, a former Queens resident visiting from North Carolina, agreed.

“They should keep the cash transactions,” she said.

Utano also said station agents, meanwhile, hand out masks, provide transfer passes to riders during major service disruptions, consolidate money on multiple cards onto one card when requested; and provide refund claim forms to riders with defective MetroCards.

He also said they have had to take on greater roles in subway safety and security

“That’s especially important today as the number of felony assaults, January through May, is the highest in at least 21 years,” Utano said.

Utano said agents alert the police on behalf of crime victims; summon ambulances for injured and sick riders; report suspicious, menacing and dangerous behavior; provide directions and travel information during emergency service changes; assist station evacuations during fires, smoke conditions, blackouts and other situations; report abandoned and suspicious packages “in our post 9/11 world”; and provide a uniformed presence to deter vandalism and criminal activity.

Minton said riders still can use cash at vending machines located at every subway station; at MetroCard Mobile Vans that travel across the city, including to areas without subway stations, and that also replace damaged MetroCards; and at 1,470 merchants and convenience stores at airports and throughout the city that do not charge a fee for new MetroCards.

He said expired MetroCards can continue to be exchanged at no charge at any MetroCard vending machine for a valid new card.

Since March 2020, damaged MetroCards have been replaced either by mail or by presenting them to the MetroCard Service Center located at 3 Stone Street in Lower Manhattan and that the practice will continue.

U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-Flushing) was direct in a Tweet expressing her opposition.

“Terrible idea to end cash transactions at NYC subway booths,” Meng wrote. “Would be a big inconvenience for riders & threatens public safety. Would also hurt those without credit cards. @MTA should be making it easier for NYers to use the subway, not making it more difficult.”

Aravella Simotas, a former state assemblywoman from Astoria whose parents moved to the United States when she was an infant, replied to Meng’s Tweet.

“This assumes that every New Yorker feels comfortable with using an automated machine,” Simotas wrote. “And how many languages/dialects do your machines support? I am sure that you took under consideration that over 130 languages are spoken in Queens, right?!”