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Private buses roll again in Queens as strike ends

Beleaguered commuters boarded private buses in southeast Queens and other parts of the borough Thursday morning for the first time since Jan. 10.Drivers and mechanics for Green Bus Lines in Queens and Command Bus Co. in Brooklyn called a strike in a bid to obtain better health benefits and retroactive pay increases as the city prepared to take over the subsidized lines and merge them into the Metropolitan Transit Authority in April.Talks to end the strike went on behind the scenes Wednesday as several members of the City Council asked federal negotiators to intervene in the walkout, which sent 70,000 riders in Queens and Brooklyn scrambling for alternate transportation.At a City Hall news briefing late Wednesday Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the tentative three-year accord with the 800 employees at both bus companies as Borough President Helen Marshall stood at his side.If the drivers and mechanics ratify the deal as expected, they will receive a lump sum of $1,000 apiece immediately and a retroactive pay increase of 3 percent covering 2004. The third year of the contract, which takes effect as of Jan. 1, 2004, will be negotiated with the MTA.The drivers' last contract expired in December 2002.When the strike started, livery cabs and vans were pressed into duty to cover some of the routes in central and southern Queens.During their commutes, many borough residents seemed to take the turmoil in stride, while others felt the added burden was too much."I pay $10 each way," said Jose Morales, 47, describing his new journey by taxi between his home in Howard Beach and his job in Ozone Park as he left the Social Security office in Jamaica earlier this week. He had also been forced to pay extra for his family members' commutes. "We don't have a car."The city authorized so-called "dollar vans" to pick up riders at stops along uncovered routes, an activity for which the drivers are normally fined. The Bloomberg administration also gave permission to livery cabs to do likewise and provided temporary eligibility to all disabled commuters for the public $2 Access-A-Ride service."We are getting a very adequate response from the vans and cars," said a spokesman for the city's Office of Emergency Management, the agency coordinating the efforts. He said the city had received "very few" complaints about price gouging.The vans replaced the Green Lines' Q6, Q10, Q11 and Q40 buses, which service downtown Jamaica, South Jamaica, Kew Gardens, Rego Park, Howard Beach and Kennedy Airport.While the dollar vans were supposed to charge $2 to replace the buses, the vehicles could not take MetroCards for any ride along the regular routes.Yvonne Reddick, district manager of Jamaica's Community Board 12, said the strike had created a hardship, particularly for parents, some of whom had responded by keeping their children at home during the strike.Prior to the settlement the city and the unions had traded blame over who was to blame for the strike, each claiming that the other side failed to show up for meetings.Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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