New York transit agency, union start negotiations

Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — The nation's largest transit agency starts contract talks with 34,000 New York City subway and bus workers on Tuesday, trying to find common ground following years of budget cuts and rising operating costs.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has pledged to keep its budget frozen for the next three years, and officials are hopeful they can get workers to agree to concessions like those made by New York State employees in recent months. But transit workers say they deserve raises.

"We're looking for a fair wage increase, and a fair wage increase is not three zeroes," said John Samuelsen, president of Transport Workers Union Local 100.

Union members planned to rally Tuesday afternoon in front of the Sheraton Hotel in midtown Manhattan where negotiations will begin.

The three-year contract will cover subway and bus workers; employees at MTA-owned bridges and suburban railroads are not included. The current contract expires on Jan. 15.

The MTA and its unions have a rocky history. In December 2005 TWU members struck for three days to press their contract demands, stranding millions of commuters and visitors just before Christmas.

The union also clashed with former MTA Chairman Jay Walder, who oversaw budget cuts and layoffs after taking over the agency in 2009.

Walder left the MTA in October to head the transit system of Hong Kong. His replacement, Joseph Lhota, started work on Monday.

In July the MTA presented a $14 billion budget for 2012 that includes another $125 million in cuts. The agency's coffers have been depleted by higher fuel costs, state budget cuts and a string of expensive storms, including a blizzard in December, Hurricane Irene in August and a freak October snowstorm.

The agency is also trying to finish two huge construction projects, a new subway line under Manhattan's Second Avenue and an expansion of the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal.

"We consider it a fragile budget," Robert Foran, the MTA's chief financial officer, said on Monday. He said the agency would only agree to raises if the union makes other concessions to offset the cost.

"They can have an increase in their wages as long as we get work rule changes or other contributions to reduce the cost in the budget to zero," Foran said.

Samuelsen said he was optimistic that negotiations would go more smoothly under Lhota, the new chairman. Lhota is a former deputy mayor and budget director for the New York City government. Before joining the MTA he was a vice president for the Madison Square Garden Company.

However, Lhota is under pressure to keep payroll costs down after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo extracted concessions from two large unions, the Public Employees Federation and the Civil Service Employees Association, earlier this year.

Cuomo had threatened 9,800 layoffs if the unions did not agree to wage freezes and benefits changes.

The MTA is not the only New York transportation agency struggling in a tough economy. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has lost $2.6 billion in revenue because of declining traffic at its bridges, tunnels, ports and airports.

In September it raised tolls on its river crossings and on the Port Authority Trans-Hudson train, a subway that runs between New Jersey and Manhattan.

The MTA itself raised bus and subway fares from $2.25 to $2.50 in December and plans to raise them twice more before 2016. It's also putting a $1 surcharge on Metrocards, the refillable fare cards, in 2013.

Every weekday about 5.1 million people ride the New York City subway and 2.6 million people ride the MTA's buses.

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