Commuter anxiety grows as does likelihood of strike at nation's largest commuter railroad

The Associated Press

Pedestrians wait to ride a train at Jamaica station on the Long Island Rail Road Tuesday, July 15, 2014, in New York. Prospects of a strike which the unions said they were planning at 12:01 a.m. next Sunday, would affect 300,000 daily riders who travel in and out of New York City from Long Island. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

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By FRANK ELTMAN and RACHELLE BLIDNER, Associated Press

HICKSVILLE, N.Y. (AP) — Anxiety grew among the nearly 300,000 daily riders caught in the middle of a labor dispute as a weekend strike at the nation's largest commuter railroad grew closer.

The eight unions representing Long Island Rail Road's 5,400 workers and Metropolitan Transportation Authority managers didn't negotiate on Tuesday, a day after both sides said talks aimed at averting a 12:01 a.m. Sunday strike had collapsed.

Meanwhile, the head of a commuters' group complained that riders are being forgotten by both sides amid the feud over pay and contributions to pension and health care plans. Long Island Rail Road Commuter Council Chairman Mark Epstein also said contingency plans for a walkout were providing little comfort.

The MTA last week revealed plans for school buses to take commuters from some Long Island stations to subway stops in New York City, the opening of large park-and-ride lots at Citi Field and Aqueduct racetrack, and a public relations effort aimed at encouraging people to work from home.

"They may be providing us with school buses, but we're not children," Epstein said. "Our concern is they stay at the table. No progress can be made when they're not talking. Our message is return to the table. If the difference is a gap or a gulf, it will not be getting any smaller if they do not talk to each other."

MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast said Monday there were no current plans to resume negotiations. Anthony Simon, the unions' chief negotiator, said in an interview at his Babylon, Long Island, office that he had not heard from the MTA on Tuesday.

"So what we're doing is preparing our membership and their families for the unfortunate possibility of a shutdown," he said. "I'm not too optimistic."

There is widespread consensus that a strike would have a devastating impact on both New York City and the suburbs to the east. Commuters and others were predicting hours-long traffic jams, overflowing parking lots near subway stations and a spectrum of other inconveniences.

State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli estimated that a strike would be a "devastating blow to a region that is still struggling to recover from Superstorm Sandy and the recession" and estimated economic losses of $50 million a day.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he was taking a "see how it goes" approach to the dispute.

"It often gets pushed to the brink and this is a major negotiation," Cuomo said. "The LIRR is vital to Long Island. Long Island households do not have any additional funds to pay for an increase in fares."

Commuters appeared exasperated over the looming strike. Some blamed workers for balking at paying for health care and pension costs.

Kevin Bigelow, a lawyer from West Babylon, blamed "typical union greediness. They're the most overpaid, underworked union in the country."

Lenny Mastrandea, a post-production colorist from Lindenhurst who takes the LIRR every day, said: "I pay for my health care. I think contributing to health care is fair."

The railroad's unions have been working without a contract since 2010. President Barack Obama appointed two emergency boards to help resolve the dispute, but the MTA rejected both nonbinding recommendations. The emergency board's last proposal called for a 17 percent raise over six years while leaving work rules and pensions alone. The MTA offered a 17 percent wage increase over seven years and the pension and health care concessions.

"My contingency plan is to work from my kitchen table but I'm not sure how long I can pull that off," said Nancy Schess, an attorney from Syosset, getting on a train in Hicksville. "I'm very, very nervous about it. I'm very much hoping they can get it together and reach a deal."

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Blidner reported from New York. Associated Press writers David Klepper in Albany and Michael Hill in Babylon contributed to this report.

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