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Personality change planned for the T

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MBTA revenue collector Louise T. Brice, a 14-year veteran, answered questions last week at the Back Bay station. (Globe Staff Photo / Pat Greenhouse)

Personality change planned for the T

By Anthony Flint, Globe Staff | October 11, 2004

Their reputation is quintessential, don't-waste-my-time Boston: the tellers behind thick-glassed booths at T stations, sometimes barely looking up at customers, talking on the telephone, meting out tokens and change, and scowling at large bills.

But if some of the system's 325 fare collectors are known for being surly, they will soon be expected to be sunny.

As the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority replaces tokens with fare cards from vending machines, fare collectors will emerge from their obsolete booths and become customer service ambassadors who will roam the stations and be expected to answer questions about the new system, give directions, and always be cheerful.

The proposed transformation -- some might say personality transplant -- is being greeted with some skepticism, especially among T riders.

''I think they might need some training," said Ken McDonald of Malden, as he was about to board an Orange Line train in Back Bay. He said he likes the idea of keeping human beings around the stations, ''but, I don't know, maybe it shouldn't be the same people."

That training comes with a $100,000 price tag. The MBTA recently hired Comma Williams Enterprises Inc. of Watertown, which boasts a team of job training specialists with psychology degrees, to run weeklong sessions beginning early next year on such topics as ''customer service competencies," cultural sensitivity, conflict resolution, and stress management.

Fifteen fare collectors are scheduled to become ambassadors in April, when automated fare collection is set to start on the Blue Line. Riders entering stations would go to a bank of machines, insert money or a credit card, get a fare card, and insert it into new turnstiles. The new system, which has been in place for years in New York, Washington, and Chicago, is planned to be introduced on all other lines over the course of the year, at a cost of $150 million.

The T promised the union representing the collectors, who make between $33,600 and $51,700 a year, that their jobs would not be cut. Instead they will take the title of ''customer service agents/station attendants," much like the 200 T ambassadors who were deployed to assist visitors during the Democratic National Convention in July, said MBTA General Manager Michael H. Mulhern. They will get crisp new uniforms, possibly blazers like those worn by ushers at Fenway Park, he said.

''This will be an entirely new station environment for our customers," Mulhern said.

Well aware of complaints about collectors, Mulhern said some grumpiness is undoubtedly bred by ''being confined to a 4-by-4 booth for eight hours, shouting at customers through bulletproof glass, in stale air. Getting them out in the station, giving them training, a uniform -- they will rise to the next level."

Mulhern defended the decision not to fire any collectors, even though their jobs will be made obsolete. The T will save some money by reducing the ranks of collectors from about 325 to 275, through attrition, retirement, or some employees moving into other jobs, he said. The new fare cards will also raise more revenue, because they will prevent people from not paying, he said.

Steve MacDougall -- president of the Boston Carmen's Union Local 589, which represents the fare collectors -- said the details of the new job description have yet to be negotiated.

''Some people are looking forward to it, and some people are apprehensive," he said. ''We're in the service industry, and we think the members will not only do a good job out on the platforms, but that it will be a more enjoyable job than being locked up in a booth selling tokens."

Several fare collectors interviewed at Red Line stations last week, all of whom declined to give their names, seemed less than enthusiastic.

''Not interested," said one at Andrew station, looking up briefly from counting dollar bills.

''I guess we have no choice," said another, at Broadway station.

But Louise T. Brice, on the afternoon shift in the booth at Back Bay station, said the role as an ambassador won't be all that different from answering questions and dealing with problems every day. ''That's what we do," she said.

Over the course of a half hour, Brice, a collector for 14 years, dealt with riders who presented a library card instead of a T pass; sought directions to the Green Line, the Blue Line, the place to buy a bus pass, and the Hertz rental car office; gave her foreign currency; or were unaware the fare has increased from $1 to $1.25.

''You see this smile on my face? That's my MO," she said.

Still, her co-workers clearly have a reputation to overcome.

''We've had a lot of issues," said Khalida Smalls, coordinator for the T Riders Union and a member of the Rider Oversight Committee, a new watchdog panel. ''We've all had difficulties buying tokens or asking directions. There have been some moments when they have frustrated riders more than helped.

''They will need the retraining and to be reoriented for their new role," she said. ''You can't just move a person and toss them into a new space and expect everything to be OK."

Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, said he expects riders to like the new arrangement, because the ambassadors will increase a sense of station safety.

Joseph Carter, chief of the MBTA police, said the collectors will become an additional set of ''eyes and ears," but he added that all T employees have been given training on security over the last three years.

From The Boston Globe

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