M.T.A. has no strike plan for LIRR reverse commuters

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A Long Island Rail Road conductor looks out the window of a train at the Woodside stop in Queens. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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If the 5,400 workers who make the Long Island Railroad run decide to walk off the job next week, the M.T.A. has plans to help thousands of commuters make it into Manhattan on Monday.

What it does not have, however, is a plan for those riders who don’t need to go to Manhattan: There will be no official options for the several thousand people who use the service to commute from New York City to their jobs on Long Island, and no plan for the commuters who don’t work normal hours.

“Nothing can replace the Long Island Rail Road,” M.T.A. spokesman Adam Lisberg said on Tuesday when asked what options reverse commuters would have in the event of a strike.

“We’ve come up with the best plan we can so the people who rely on the LIRR can get to work one way or the other,” he said, before saying that “reverse-commuting service" is not something they can provide.

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Exactly how many people ride the rails to get to jobs on Long Island is unclear. There are about 130,000 commuters who use the railroad to commute into the city on weekdays, accounting for 260,000 of the 301,000 daily trips. The remainder of the daily trips—somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 on most days—include those reverse commuters, as well as many others riding the trains for various reasons, Lisberg said.

The Regional Plan Association, which has studied the issue, estimates between 6,000 and 11,000 commuters ride the LIRR from the five boroughs to Nassau or Suffolk counties. Jeff Zupan, a senior fellow at the R.P.A., believes the number is around 7,000 or 8,000.

The Center for an Urban Future, which has been studying Queens, estimates there around 2,400 people who use the LIRR to commute from that borough to Long Island, research director David Giles said. There also people who commute from outside the city, including New Jersey and upstate New York, who use the railroad to get to Long Island offices, he said. Regardless, the M.T.A. really doesn’t have a lot of options

“I think it’s probably limited what they can do,” Giles said of commuters finding ways to Long Island in the event of a strike. “In Queens, there’s a significant number of buses that travel to Long Island. And those probably aren’t equipped to handle a big inflow of commuters. What can they do? I do know there aren’t a lot of options for people who don’t have cars of their own.”

Lisberg, the M.T.A. spokesman, said the agency simply won’t be able to help all its regular riders if a strike occurs. The plan to use school buses to haul 15,000 commuters to Manhattan is meant to help as many people as possible, he said.

It’s not an easy task, Zupan said.

“I think it’s very difficult for the M.T.A. to serve these people,” he said. “It’s logical they’re trying to deal with the predominant volume of travel, mainly those going from the Island towards Manhattan. And that’s what they’re plan is.”

While there may be thousands of people who will have few options other than hitching rides with car-owning co-workers, he said, those people represent a small percentage of the LIRR’s total ridership. He feels for them, but said, “I sympathize with the MTA that they can’t really effectively deal with this group. … It’s a bad situation.”

There was no traction on Tuesday following a breakdown of negotiations that occurred on Monday, when both sides accused the other of negotiating in bad faith. Lisberg said Tuesday afternoon that no talks had occurred, though he declined to say if any were planned.

Anthony Simons, a spokesman for the coalitions of unions that the M.T.A. is in talks with, had not returned several messages by evening. He was said to have spent hours on conference calls Tuesday. The unions will be allowed to strike starting on Sunday if no accord is reached by then.

Ira Greenberg, the commuter representative on the M.T.A. board, said it would be difficult for reverse commuters as well as the thousands of riders who commute during off-peak times who would also not be accommodated by the authority’s contingency plan.

Greenberg said off-peak ridership has increased in recent years, and that he’s been amazed when he’s been on late trains.

He faulted leadership for not looking for options to help those riders who don’t work normal office hours, as well as those commuting to Long Island.

“They should have looked at it and seen if there was adequate service to pick up reverse commuters,” he said. “It should have been looked at – whether these people will be able to travel. ... There should be some alternative.”