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A Queens judge has enjoined New York City and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority from taking over four remaining private commuter bus lines until a dispute over job protections for the lines’ non-union employees is resolved. Without the determination and enforcement of the employees’ rights, Supreme Court Justice Duane Hart said, the takeover would “undoubtedly result in unemployment, loss of pension benefits, and taxpayer waste.” This potential harm “far outweighs any loss that the City may incur if the status quo is maintained,” the judge wrote in Andre v. City of New York, 13423/04. The decision is a blow to plans by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to fold the private lines into the MTA. During the past year, the city has taken over several private bus lines, which were franchised and subsidized by the city with federal assistance under a 1975 agreement, and transferred their routes to the MTA. Before the takeovers, the private lines were the chief means of transportation for about 400,000 commuters in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx. Bloomberg has said the MTA will be able to operate the routes more efficiently, given its economies of scale and responsibility for most of the rest of the city’s transportation network. The four remaining private commuter bus companies are the Command Bus Co., the Triboro Coach Corp., Green Bus Lines and Jamaica Buses. They operate 693 buses on 51 routes, carrying 137,000 commuters a day. Earlier this month, Mayor Bloomberg set a Nov. 30 deadline for terminating the companies’ franchise. Last year, the non-union employees sued for breach of contract and, along with the bus companies, requested an injunction, arguing that the takeover agreement between the city and the MTA violated the 1975 agreement. They claim that agreement, modified in 2002 to include non-union as well as union employees, requires the city to assume full responsibility for the benefits and job protection of the lines’ workers. A separate suit by the bus companies’ union employees is also pending in Queens Supreme Court. The employees’ rights are presently the subject of an arbitration before the U.S. Department of Labor. But Justice Hart said that proceeding did not strip his court of jurisdiction in the matter. The judge said the plaintiffs had demonstrated the likelihood of success on the merits and potential for irreparable harm to merit a preliminary injunction. He said the 1975 agreement imposed requirements on the city and the bus companies to provide “specific employee protective arrangements for the benefit of the union and non-union employees of the subject transportation system.” The judge also denied the MTA’s motion to have itself dismissed from the case. Though not a party to the 1975 agreement, the state agency was a necessary party, Hart said, because it was “undeniably clear that the MTA will be directly affected by the ultimate outcome herein.” RULING’S TIMING AN ISSUE The city sharply criticized the decision, noting that the judge’s ruling came in the middle of talks that had been close to producing a settlement. “We believe that Justice Hart’s ruling … was in error, and the city will be taking immediate steps to have his preliminary injunction lifted,” said Eric Rundbaken of the Corporation Counsel’s Office, which represented the city in the case. He added that “all parties to the case had agreed to virtually all the conditions relating to the transfer of the bus operations to the MTA, and accordingly had jointly requested that Justice Hart not render a ruling to allow the negotiations to be completed,” continued Rundbaken. Douglas Cooper of Ruskin Moscau Faltischek in Uniondale, N.Y., the lawyer for the bus companies, also said the parties had been close to a settlement after many months of negotiations. Cooper said he was not sure yet how the injunction would affect discussions, and declined to say what the outstanding issues were between the companies and the city. Cooper’s family owns the four bus companies. Steven A. Diaz, the Washington, D.C., lawyer representing the non-union employees, was similarly cautious about the impact of the decision on the talks though he said his clients would be “gratified” by the ruling. The MTA is represented by Proskauer Rose.

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