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Liu blasts MTA for silence at hearing on bus contracts

City Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing) and speakers at a public hearing at City Hall expressed frustration Tuesday at what they saw as foot dragging and silence by the MTA on a takeover of faltering private bus lines in Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn.

An official of the transit union that represents many of the private bus line drivers called the issue “a hot potato no one wants to hold.”

“The Metropolitan Transportation Authority should count itself lucky that the city has been magnanimous and generous in paying for and managing these private bus lines for the better part of the last century,” said Liu as he convened a hearing of his Transportation Committee in council chambers.

“I am disappointed but not surprised that there are no representatives of the MTA, the governor who essentially controls the MTA or the mayor present today,” he said. “Their position has been and remains that because negotiations are ongoing between the city, the state and the MTA they feel it would be ‘inappropriate’ to comment publicly. This is wholly unacceptable to both this Council and the public."

The contract between the city and the private bus lines was to have expired last New Year’s Eve but was extended to June 30.

Several of those who discussed the seven private bus lines serving 400,000 daily passengers in the three boroughs painted a dismal picture of deteriorating equipment, worsening employee morale, service cuts and breakdowns that anger straphangers and uncertainty over the future.

The hearing came only days after Mayor Bloomberg had vented his own pique at the MTA, which had been loathe even to discuss a takeover of private lines but then announced it was spending $231 million on new cars for the Metro-North Commuter Railroad.

“Unfortunately, the MTA is showing more interest in improving life for suburban commuters than in helping these riders,” Bloomberg said in his weekly radio address Sunday. “And every straphanger is getting squeezed in the process.”

The mayor has withdrawn the $150 million subsidy the city has paid for the private bus routes.

“We are here today to explore whether the MTA is meeting its legal mandate as a transportation authority and if not, to call for the agency to meet its mandate,” Liu said at the outset of the hearing.

“The legal mandate is clear,” Liu said after reading a section of the New York State Public Authorities law, which created and empowers the MTA.

“The MTA is to ‘develop and implement a unified mass transit policy’ for the region,” Liu said. “Has the MTA fulfilled this mandate? I submit to you that it has not.”

Liu said the seven private bus lines, which he said were “currently in operation and in jeopardy of ceasing operations,” should be run by or at least be managed by the MTA.

“The Public Authorities Law says so,” Liu said.

Ed Watt, secretary-treasurer of Transit Workers Union Local 100, representing drivers of many of the private lines drivers, said:

“In point of fact, rather than treating responsibility for Queens service as a hot potato that no one wants to hold, the MTA and the City should be in Albany together seeking increased funding for that service.”

Watt said Triboro Coach continues to run on a summer schedule. Yet even with that reduced schedule, he said runs are constantly delayed for lack of equipment and a growing number of trips are terminated due to equipment problems. He said Queens Surface also has delays because of equipment problems.

“At Triboro coach, with 200 buses, we find at any given time 20 to 25 percent ‘against the wall,’ that is, out of service for lack of parts or repair,” he said.

Jerry D’Amore, president of Liberty Lines, said his company’s buses were 16 years old, but the biggest problem was “how can we make commitments when we don’t know whether we will be in business after June?”

D’Amore said the “banks don’t understand” so it complicates borrowing money.

Liu asked the speakers if any of them or their organizations had been approached by the MTA or had any information about any negotiations. None had.

Councilwoman Helen Sears (D-Jackson Heights) said the MTA’s refusal to come to the hearing was “really horrendous.”

“It is an indication of the MTA’s attitude toward the outer boroughs,” Sears said. “It is offensive. They are arrogant,” she said. “To me, an MTA takeover is a negative.”

Reach contributing writer Philip Newman by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 136.

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