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LIRR commuter group urges MTA to set up 'strike lane' plan

The MTA has asked President Obama to appoint

The MTA has asked President Obama to appoint another Presidential Emergency Board to help settle an impasse between the agency and labor unions. Credit: Chris Ware

The head of the Long Island Rail Road watchdog organization said the MTA should work with the LIRR Commuter Council to come up with innovative ways to get people to work in the event of a railroad union strike later this year.

A day after MTA chairman and chief executive Thomas Prendergast released some early details of the agency's strike contingency plan, Commuter Council chairman Mark Epstein said he wants the MTA to explore more "out-of-the-box ideas," such as establishing a dedicated "strike lane" for displaced commuters on Long Island's major roadways.

"Our place should be in that room when these kinds of decisions are being made that are going to affect each and every rider on the railroad," said Epstein, adding that Prendergast has promised to include the council in its contingency planning efforts going forward.

"Put us in a room together and let us come up with ideas," Epstein said. "And let's hope that we never have to use them." Epstein did not elaborate on how his "strike lane" concept could work on different Island highways.

The unions representing most LIRR workers have said they will go on strike as early as July if they cannot reach a resolution in their nearly 4-year-long contract dispute. The unions want the MTA to accept the recommendations of federal mediators, who called for raises totaling 17 percent over six years, and no changes to rules that can pay workers extra wages for some assignments.

The MTA has rejected the recommendations, saying that raises, without major union givebacks, would require steep fare hikes or drastically underfunding the agency's next capital plan. The second Presidential Emergency Board will review the dispute this spring.

Prendergast said Thursday that the MTA has been developing its strike contingency plans "for a while" and is fast approaching a time when it will relay that plan to riders.

Prendergast, who helped develop a contingency plan for the LIRR's last strike in 1994, said this one will probably rely less on shuttle buses bringing riders from LIRR stations to subway stations in Queens, and more on carpooling and telecommuting.

"The biggest change today versus 20 years ago is telecommuting. It's just vastly different in terms of people being able to work from some other location," he said.

Epstein said he hopes telecommuting is not a major part of the MTA's plan.

"That's telling people, 'You're on your own.' That's not what we want from the MTA," Epstein said. Prendergast said that while the agency is considering all options, one thing riders should not expect during a strike is any LIRR train service at all, including trains operated by nonunion railroad workers. Epstein said the agency should not rule out any possible solutions until it consults with riders' representatives.

"At this point, don't take anything off the table," Epstein said. "We don't even know where the table is at yet."

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