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Commentary By Nicole Gelinas

A Grim Portent

Cities, Economics New York City

Iron Maidens & NYC's Future

NEW York's possible future was depressingly on dis play Sunday night at the entrance to the uptown A/C/E platforms at Penn Station.

At quarter of 11, the Amtrak train from Boston had just arrived. A horde of passengers carted luggage and children up and down stairs to the subway - and found disorder.

The token booth and bank of regular turnstiles were closed. The only way for dozens of passengers to get in was through two "Iron Maidens" - those barred, floor-to-ceiling revolving doors.

It's hard to lug suitcases, strollers and kids through these gates. So the MTA, by relying on them at a station heavily used by travelers, is insulting its customers. Plus, forcing people to push all of their stuff through the contraptions slows foot traffic for everyone else.

And actively discouraging people from using public transit conflicts with Mayor Bloomberg's goal of encouraging people to use it.

Worse, though, one of the two Iron Maidens was off-limits on this late night. A criminal MetroCard "swipe seller" had commandeered it - charging people to swipe them in using his unlimited-ride cards.

It makes no sense: The MTA lost as much money to this guy as it saved by not keeping a night clerk.

And having the theft continue in full view sends a terrible message about public order - and public safety. If it keeps up, that message will drive residents and tourists away - costing the city more in lost tax revenue.

Lou Anemone, a former MTA security director, once told me that there's "nothing like a human presence" in the subway stations to serve as a deterrent to crime - and not just the unreported theft of services going on Sunday night, which won't show up in the city's crime figures.

Indeed, the sense that nobody was in charge was the most unsettling part.

Even less comforting is that the MTA has a "rational" reason - given New York's twisted spending priorities - why it won't adequately staff its stations. And that logic portends poorly for our future.

Thanks to recalcitrant state politicians, the MTA has almost no flexibility in its workforce. Station agents, for example, get paid nearly $24 hourly, plus benefits and overtime - and that's that.

The MTA can't see if people will work for less to get or to keep a job, nor can it ask workers to pay more for the privilege of retiring at 55, as the private sector can. (If the private sector ever paid workers to retire at 55, which it doesn't.)

Yet the MTA needs such blue-collar flexibility even more than other government agencies - because it has less room to wring savings from its white-collar workforce.

In city government, 7 percent of workers make six figures a year, consuming 22 percent of the wage budget. At the MTA, less than 3 percent of the workforce pulls six figures, consuming less than 6 percent of payroll.

So the hourly workers are where the money is.

But will state pols stick up for the working-class riding public rather than for a comparatively few politically powerful transit workers? They haven't to date, leaving the MTA only one way to reduce labor costs: Cut jobs - hence, the empty stations.

In fact, thanks to rising labor costs, the MTA plans to cut hundreds more station staffers - at the same time that (more expensive) policing resources to deal with the disorder are scarcer.

Worse, state politicians put far greater priority on spending to please health-care and education special interests - so the MTA can't expect much help, leaving it less money to spend on the labor costs that those same state pols keep too high.

Albany needs to fix these problems. Instead, Sen. Majority Leader Malcolm Smith is stalling - asking if the MTA is exaggerating its woes.

If anything, the MTA ignored what Albany had done to its budget for far too many years. Now its problems are all too clear: It can't cover its rising costs now that booms in real estate and on Wall Street aren't shoveling record amounts of tax revenue into it.

But the obvious results of years of political dithering - e.g., things like the Penn Station stop on Sunday night - are why the public is skeptical of giving the MTA more money for anything.

This loss of public confidence is dangerous. Without public support, the city's physical assets will be starved - creating a vicious circle where poor performance further discourages public support for all-important subways.

If our "leaders" in Albany don't start showing some leadership, the city's in deep trouble.

This piece originally appeared in New York Post

This piece originally appeared in New York Post