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Train, bus service cuts protested at MTA hearing

Outraged commuters, politicians and union members excoriated Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials Monday night in a rowdy public hearing on planned service cuts at the Long Island Rail Road, Long Island Bus and other MTA agencies.

"I've been crushed, stepped on, sat on," said Debbie Kouns, 42, who commutes two hours each way by bus from Huntington to her job at a doctor's office in Port Washington.

"Skin-to-skin contact-that's nasty, that's disgusting," she said, describing bus overcrowding to the officials, including MTA chairman Jay H. Walder and board members Mitchell Pally and Allen Cappelli.

"Health risk is involved," Kouns said. "But you don't care about that, do you?"

As the audience whooped and whistled, a man in the audience shouted: "They have drivers!"

Some 300 people, many wearing union T-shirts, attended the public hearing - one of nine being held across the region and the first of two on Long Island - which began shortly after 6 p.m. at Chateau Briand, 440 Old Country Rd.

In December, facing a $383-million gap in its 2010 budget, the MTA board approved broad service and administrative reductions across its agencies. But the transportation authority must hear from riders before the board votes to adopt specific service changes in service.

A second Long Island hearing will be held March 8 at Riverhead County Center, at 210 Center Dr., in Riverhead.

The proposed cuts include the cancellation of LIRR service from Ronkonkoma to Greenport except for summer weekends, the reduction of trains on the Port Washington branch and the elimination of 13 Long Island Bus routes.

The railroad announced last week that it would eliminate about 90 administrative jobs and some 60 other workers, mostly engineers and conductors.

LIRR officials said that those cuts are just the first wave, as the MTA struggles to regain financial footing after addressing its $383-million deficit in December, only to learn that it now faces another $378-million drop in tax revenue.

Monday night a parade of elected officials, from Malverne Mayor Patricia Norris-McDonald to staffers representing state senators and Assembly members - who were in legislative session in Albany - blasted the MTA for laying off workers and cutting service after the state bailed out the agency last year with a new payroll tax.

"What you're doing is 180 degrees in the opposite direction of where you should be going," Nassau Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick) said. "What happened? You got your new tax."

Speaking to reporters before the hearing, Walder called service cuts "inevitable" because of the $750-million financial hole his agency faces.

"The service changes do involve pain," he said."They will affect people's lives and they will make it more difficult for people to get to work.

. . . We're sorry about that. Unfortunately we can't spend money that we don't have."

But rider advocates and development experts questioned Walder's plan Monday, arguing that the agency could transfer $90 million in stimulus funds from its capital budget to supplement its operating budget.

Calling the cuts "horrific" and "tone-deaf," Eric Alexander, executive director of Vision Long Island, said: "We can't have transit-oriented development without transit."

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