UPPER EAST SIDE — The daily commute has become a nightmare for some Upper East Siders who complain removing station agents has made buying MetroCards at the bustling 86th Street-Lexington Ave. station often impossible.
They claim the hub has become a magnet for criminals who tamper with ticket machines, leaving them frequently out of order.
The Community Board 8 Transportation Committee recently voted to urge the MTA to rebuild a manned booth that was stripped out of the uptown platform — and they want the MTA to staff it with an attendant between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m.
The downtown platform has retained its booth.
Committee members said the station's MetroCard machines are routinely abused by vandals and swipe-selling cons in the wake if the booth removal.
"We need to talk about the ticket machines. They often don't work," said Charles Warren, CB8 Transportation Committee co-chair.
"Sometimes you can't pay with cash. Sometimes you can't pay with credit. It's a great inconvenience to people. If you need to get a new MetroCard or refresh your MetroCard, it's hard to do."
"There's not a booth there, and there used to be a booth — that exacerbates the situation," he added. "A lot of people have been complaining about these machines malfunctioning. We felt it was time to act, and hopefully the MTA will do something."
MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said the problems had nothing to do with the missing booths.
"This is an ongoing issue system-wide," he said. "And it's an issue regardless of station staffing levels."
He added that "there are not plans to bring back a booth."
In the past two years, the MTA has taken away 178 previously closed service booths, claiming the initiative "removes station clutter and improves station appearance and customer access at the affected control areas."
But residents counter that the missing booths don't just thwart time-pressed straphangers who are having a hard time with broken machines — they also make travel tricky for the neighborhood's aging population.
"To have to walk down a flight of stairs and find that you don't have access — and then have to walk back up a flight of stairs, cross the street, walk down another flight, and come back — that's a lot for an elderly person or any person who has difficulty walking," said Michele Birnbaum, CB8 member.
Some attendees wondered why the broken machines weren't repaired more quickly.
MTA officials at the meeting said that the automated dispensers were linked to a central system, such that operators would be immediately notified of any malfunctions.
When asked why they wouldn't install new machines or whether there was a surplus, MTA officials at the meeting and in subsequent interviews said this wouldn't fit into the agency's long term movement toward a newer, better set-up.
"That's why we don't have extra machines on hand," Ortiz said. "It's outdated technology. This is technology that first came out in the 1980s. We are moving toward some type of 'smart card' payment system."
The MTA didn't yet have a specific timeline for when that system would be unveiled, Ortiz said.
He said the best thing to do is sign up for EasyPayXpress, a MetroCard that is linked to one's debit or credit account.
"It automatically refills, so you never have to deal with a vending machine while you have this EasyPay card," he said.
With reporting from Jill Colvin.