By James DeWeese
So instead of picking up and dropping off passengers for the early morning dash to work, he ambled over to where transit union officials, City Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Sunnyside) and Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum were circulating a petition demanding guarantees from the MTA that it would not cut Queens bus service when the city takes over the borough's private bus lines later this month.
“Our job is to serve the public and I wind up sitting here,” Steinberg said, who pointed out that his bus broke down three times the week before.
In an attempt to address some of the service problems plaguing surface transportation in the outerboroughs, the MTA is slated to take over bus lines operated by Command, Green Bus, Jamaica Buses, Triboro Coach, Queens Surface, Liberty Lines and New York Bus Service on July 1. More than 300,000 people ride the private lines in Queens every day, according to Borough President Helen Marshall.
But with less than a month to go, Gioia, Gotbaum and others said the MTA has not offered a clear picture of how it plans to handle some of the finer points of the takeover, including alterations to service routes, bus depot space and workers' employment and benefit packages.
Meanwhile, about 125 private bus workers filed suit against the city last Thursday in a last ditch effort to stop the takeover. In the suit filed in Queens Supreme Court, the workers allege the city is in violation of federal labor laws for not protecting their jobs. They also said the mayor is violating city law by authorizing the takeover without a competitive bid process.
Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing), who chairs the transportation committee in the City Council, said he believes the lawsuit is a reaction to the fact that non-unionized employees do not enjoy the same job security as unionized employees.
“These hundreds of people in Queens have been in limbo for an inordinate amount of time,” he said. “Even now they have no idea what their fate is. It's just an example of the paucity of details that exist.”
Triboro mechanic Phil Marino, a union member who attended Monday's petition drive, said he was most concerned about his pension.
“After working for 27 years, not (being) sure what's going to happen to you is not easy,” Marino said.
The petition drive came just a few days after the MTA was a no-show at a City Council public hearing aimed at addressing the city's takeover of private bus lines. It also precedes a town hall meeting slated for Thursday at 7 p.m. on York College's Jamaica campus.
MTA spokesman Tom Kelly said the authority had already informed the Council that it had not planned to attend its hearing because the details of the takeover were still being ironed out.
“First of all, we're in discussions – negotiations, if you will,” Kelly said. “To air the negotiations publicly is fruitless.”
Kelly said the MTA already has promised to make no service or work changes for at least six months after the takeover, although he did not rule out eventually consolidating certain routes.
“The objective here is to improve service, the equipment and the overall ride,” he said.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the takeover will only result in improved service in Queens. He said, however, the city must be careful how it spends its money.
“This has been going on for a long time with continuously degenerating service,” he told a Flushing civic meeting Tuesday night. “We are in very delicate negotiations. There are union workers who are worried about their jobs.”
Gioia said he and others see the July 1 takeover as a positive step toward improving service on the borough's bus lines, which are serviced by a fleet of buses union officials said are on average more than 16 years old. But he said they're also looking for answers.
“It's very difficult to get your life on track if you don't know if you're going to get to work,” said Gioia, who wanted to know among other things about the potential for service cuts before they took place.
In a word, Bronx resident Judith Wright described current Queens bus service as “lousy.”
The 45-year-old travels through Queens every day to get to work at Rikers Island and like other riders waiting to hop on the Q101 R near the press conference, she said her two- to three-hour transit across the borough bogs her down.
“The biggest problem is the buses are never here,” she said. “They're always breaking down. They're overcrowded. They're just lousy.”
Reporter Cynthia Koons contributed to this report.
Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at email@example.com, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.