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Getting off the buses: Transit union is both bidding for and suing over new van lines

Published: August 12, 2010

Publication: New York Daily News

By Editorials

The Transport Workers Union is making the Metropolitan Transportation Authority an offer the agency cannot refuse: Replace buses with dollar vans on the city’s least trafficked, most inefficient routes.

TWU lawyer Arthur Schwartz says the union is all for the scheme, provided, of course, its members are at the wheel at agreeable wage and benefit rates. While that’s a big catch, it may not be an insurmountable obstacle.

The union’s position is a major step – one that likely reflects the dawning of a new reality.

With or without the TWU’s blessing, the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission is on the verge of awarding franchises to dollar-van fleets that will operate along the routes of five bus lines that recently fell victim to MTA budget cuts.

On the one hand, the union sued to block the program. On the other, the union bid to run the service on all five lines with its own van fleet. The TLC so far has selected the TWU to operate one route, Brooklyn‘s B71, which runs through Park SlopeCarroll Gardens and Prospect Heights and carried 1,080 passengers on a weekday.

The union is promising a fare of only $1, half the TLC’s $2 maximum. Schwartz says drivers will earn about $25 an hour, roughly what the MTA paid, plus benefits.

That would be a good deal for passengers. The single-ride cash fare on traditional buses is $2.25, and the average per-ride charge for the most cost-effective MetroCard, the unlimited 30-day card, is 99 cents if the card is used 90 times.

It would also be a great deal for taxpayers, who would not subsidize the trips, as they now do for all bus and subway service.

Yes, the numbers sound too good to be true. But dollar vans are enormously popular, and the TWU may be banking on capturing far more riders along the routes than the buses did.

The economics will play out on the streets as the TWU, with its own money at stake, competes with bidders who win franchises for the other lines. Those are the B23 (Borough ParkKensingtonFlatbush, with 1,580 weekday customers); B39 (WilliamsburgManhattan, 1,180); Q74 (Kew Gardens, Queens College, 2,100), and Q79 (Little NeckGlen OaksBellerose, 650).

Schwartz believes the TWU should get all the business. He will surely bring misguided anti-competitive legal challenges if the TLC rightly awards contracts to independent entrepreneurs.

Already, though, the point has been made. Vans appear to hold the potential for major cost savings on select bus routes. The TWU has invited the MTA to consider the possibilities, and it must. Meanwhile, the TLC must put the rest of the routes slashed by the MTA out to bid.

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