Less than two weeks before some 5,400 LIRR workers could walk off their jobs -- shutting down the nation's largest commuter railroad -- the MTA doesn't have a final contingency plan to transport stranded commuters.
Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Thomas Prendergast said four months ago that it was "fast approaching time" that the agency would have to release a strike plan to the public. But with a July 20 deadline, the agency faces several hurdles.
They include a contract for a shuttle bus provider still out to bid, vows from bus drivers' unions not to accept "scab work" and complaints from elected officials that the agency is overlooking their respective constituencies.
"We are yet to see any official plan or even a draft of one," said Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council. "Zero. There's nothing coming out. It's a wall of silence coming from the MTA."
An MTA email to state officials last month offered some details about the agency's plan, including that shuttle buses will be available at seven locations for customers and that some state parks will be used as staging areas for parking lots.
But the MTA has not formally communicated any of its blueprint to the Long Island Rail Road's 300,000 daily riders. Asked for a status update on the contingency plan, Prendergast has said the agency's focus has been on collective bargaining to settle the contract dispute with eight LIRR unions.
"We are continuing to refine it," MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said last week of the strike backup plan. "We don't want to put out this plan until it's ready and it's absolutely necessary, because our priority remains trying to resolve this at the bargaining table."
The four-year-long labor fight has reached an impasse, with the MTA wanting workers to accept a seven-year pact with 17 percent raises and concessions involving future employees' wages and benefits. The unions want the MTA to accept the recommendations of two White House-appointed arbitration panels, which called for 17 percent raises over six years, and no concessions for future workers.
The National Mediation Board has scheduled a meeting Tuesday between the MTA and union representatives.
Riders await guidance
LIRR commuter Christopher Maloney of Garden City said he hopes to be able to telecommute to his finance job during a strike. But his girlfriend, who works at the NYU School of Medicine, will either have to go into work or ask for vacation time well in advance. Maloney said they could both use some guidance from the MTA, and fast.
"Two weeks out, they definitely should have something out letting people know the different shuttle buses, anything like that," Maloney, 32, said. "They've pretty much shown their incompetence."
Several elected officials from Long Island have also taken issue with the MTA's strike preparations to date. Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray said there were too many shuttle bus locations in the town. Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola) in a letter to Prendergast complained about there being none in North Hempstead town.
At a June 21 union rally, Rich Schaffer, Babylon Town supervisor and Suffolk Democratic Party chairman, described the MTA's contingency planning as "an incompetent mess."
"The lack of urgency, to where a contingency plan doesn't exist or isn't being communicated, shows almost a disdain for the commuter," said Nassau Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick), who has written to Prendergast asking him to hold at least two public meetings to inform commuters about a strike plan. He has not heard back. "It's almost as if they want chaos to reign here."
Lisberg said the MTA has listened to the comments and concerns of elected officials and "is trying to take all of them into account" while preparing a final plan.
MTA board member John Molloy, who represents Nassau, said although it might not be apparent to the public, the MTA has been preparing its strike plan for months, including at meetings with elected officials Molloy has attended.
While Molloy believes the MTA does need to start releasing information on its contingency plan, he said that won't make a strike less painful.
"It's going to be miserable, no matter how you look at it," Molloy said.