By Philip Newman
Elected officials from Queens and other boroughs as well as City Council Speaker Gifford Miller gathered outside City Hall last week to implore Mayor Michael Bloomberg to spend the more than $150 million in available federal funds to replace worn-out private buses serving 400,000 riders.
The Bloomberg administration replied that it would be folly to buy new buses before knowing whether a hoped-for MTA takeover would go through since even new private buses would not fit into the MTA fleet.
“We cannot continue to hold the residents of Queens hostage as the unlikely MTA takeover is debated,” said Queens Borough President Helen Marshall at a news conference last Thursday on the steps of City Hall. “Queens residents are feeling the pain with longer waits, older buses that break down and overcrowding.”
Several Queens council members joined her to insist that the federal funds should be used for the private buses that crisscross the borough.
“We demand answers,” said Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing), chairman of the Council's Transportation Committee.
“For two years, we have asked for information about plans for bus lines run by the private companies and we have been repeatedly told that negotiations are underway.”
The contract between the private bus companies and the city expired last New Year's Eve but was extended until June 30. Executives of the companies have complained of an uncertain future and straphangers, particularly those in eastern Queens, where there are few subway lines, say they fear a shutdown or strike.
Despite the talks “bus runs are less frequent, buses break down more often and buses are dirtier,” Liu said. “It is outrageous to now find the administration has sat on more than $100 million that should have been used to improve at least maintained.”
Bloomberg administration officials said it might be futile to spend the millions in federal money on replacing the dilapidated buses of the seven private lines since they are of a different manufacture than those of the MTA fleet, which could not use them.
“My constituents don't care who runs these buses,” said Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria), whether it's the MTA, the city or Disney. What they want and deserve is reliable bus service.”
A point of contention in the negotiations on an MTA takeover has been Bloomberg's withdrawal of a $150 million annual subsidy for the private buses.
But Liu said at a recent public hearing that the MTA is obligated to maintain public transportation in the New York City region by the legislation that created the transit agency.
“The people of Queens and New York City who rely on private bus lines are paying more and getting less,” said Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Woodside). People are riding in buses that were built way back in 1985.” The bus lines involved are Jamaica Buses, Triboro Coach, Liberty Lines Express, Command Bus Co., Queens Surface Corp., Green Bus Lines and New York Bus Service.
Councilman James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows) said “late and overcrowded buses are unacceptable. The money the mayor is holding is desperately needed to improve these bus lines.”
Bus riders in Queens have long complained of breakdowns and longer and longer waits for private buses, which average 500,000 miles, twice that of MTA buses.
Liu and several other Council members criticized the mayor's office and the MTA for refusing to attend the recent hearing on the private lines or at least to end what Liu called their silence on negotiations.
Reach contributing writer Philip Newman by e-mail at email@example.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 136.