By Dustin Brown
A litany of speakers blasted the city’s plan to give control of the borough’s private bus lines to the Metropolitan Transit Authority at a public hearing Friday, demanding more public involvement in the closed-door negotiations that are slated to produce a deal by the end of June.
“It’s clear the city has no plan in place for a June 30 deadline,” said state Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan (D-Ridgewood) after the hearing, which was held in Queens Borough Hall. “They haven’t answered any issues about subsidies, they haven’t answered any issues about service.”
But representatives of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the MTA described the consolidation as a means of improving efficiency and service.
“There is no question that MTA can offer better service for the same cost to regional bus riders and there is every reason to believe that eventually we can even so do for less,” said Linda Kleinbaum, the MTA’s deputy executive director for administration.
The hearing, held by the state Assembly’s Corporations Committee, was meant to investigate issues surrounding the proposed takeover, which many have complained has been cloaked in secrecy.
Susan Kupferman, the director of the mayor’s office of operations, said the city’s goal is “to reach an agreement in principle with the MTA by June 30th” for the transfer of responsibility over the city’s seven private bus lines, which are heavily subsidized by the city Department of Transportation.
Four of the lines — Queens Surface, Triboro Coach, Jamaica Buses and Green Bus Lines — operate many routes in Queens, and public officials voiced concerns that service would suffer if the MTA assumed control.
“Logistical and legal issues have not been publicly addressed,” said Borough President Helen Marshall. “The residents of the borough depend on bus service on the routes currently in operation. Assurance that service on those routes will continue has not been offered.”
Speakers complained that questions have not been answered about how the MTA would protect employee rights, who would pick up pension obligations, and where the MTA would store its buses because all but one of the Queens depots are owned by the companies, not the city.
Jerry Cooper, the chairman of a coalition of private lines called the Transit Alliance, also voiced fears that the MTA would eliminate the express bus service that 250,000 people use every day.
Kupferman said the city is currently evaluating many of the issues related to the transfer, examining the service in detail as well as its impact on the workforce, property concerns and liability.
Although the prospect of putting the private routes under MTA control enjoyed some support, the city and the MTA faced widespread criticism for the way they have gone about their negotiations.
“Neither the city administration nor the MTA will talk with the unions, the owners or the general public and reveal their plan or include us in the talks, even after repeated requests by us to do so,” said John Longo, the president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1179, which represents Green Bus employees. “Our sole information up to this point has been in the press.”
Beverly Dolinsky, the executive director of the New York City Transit Riders Council, said her group supports an MTA takeover of the private lines but demanded that the city and state continue to subsidize the service and not use the transfer as a short-term budgetary tool.
“A lack of concomitant subsidies will create even further pressure on the MTA to raise fares and cut service,” Dolinsky said. “This would be bad for transit riders and workers alike.”
Nolan said after the hearing that she supports the idea of MTA control but disputes the process.
“I favor a takeover, but if the city is going to do it but do it badly … many people are going to oppose it,” Nolan said.
She has introduced legislation to the Assembly that would provide for an MTA takeover while protecting employees and preserving the subsidy.
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.