Broken windows and flat tires are minor symptoms compared to the busted valves and burnt-out engines of rows of out-of-service buses at the Triboro Coach garage in Jackson Heights, Queens. These buses are "against the wall"--shop talk for broken down, with little hope of repair. But the decrepit condition of the seven private fleets serving New York's boroughs is indicative of much deeper troubles for these companies and their workers.

The bitter conflict over outer-borough bus service has exploded since the last contract expired in 2002. Yet even if the situation reaches a long-awaited resolution this June, riders could still find themselves waiting on the curb.

Aside from a blip in service during a strike in 2002, seven private companies have provided service in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx for the past 12 years under a single agreement with the city. It's an unusual arrangement: The bus lines are dependent on the city for more than $100 million in annual subsidies, as well as bus purchases and maintenance, and the oversight of many of their facilities.

But the companies say the city is strangling the life out of them, in six-month intervals. Every six months since 2002, the city has extended the operating agreement--ostensibly to allow the city time to negotiate a takeover by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), under which Mayor Michael Bloomberg says taxpayers will save the $120 million now paid to the bus companies.

But those savings won't come easily: It will cost an estimated one billion dollars to get the old fleet up to speed, money the MTA says it simply doesn't have.

"What we have here is almost like a Bermuda Triangle," Councilmember Joseph Addabbo said in an October City Council hearing. The private bus companies are at one apex, Bloomberg's administration at another and the MTA at the third. Pressure is being applied on all sides, but the most likely harmed party in this political stalemate is the one trapped in the middle: 400,000 riders.

_______

Teresa Meade never took the bus until a year ago, when she hurt her shoulder and couldn't hoist herself out of her car into her wheelchair. After 25 years of driving, Meade needed another way to get from her home in Lindenwood, Queens, to her secretarial job at Verizon in Manhattan. It took her months to learn the ropes of riding as a disabled passenger: calling ahead to reserve a handicapped-accessible bus, using the lifts and locks, and knowing the drivers well enough to get assistance.

"At first, I'd get nasty, I'd get nervous, I'd get annoyed, I'd call everyday for a working bus, but the lifts wouldn't work, or they wouldn't come on time," says Meade. "Now, they know me and cater to me, but I know I was as hard on them as they were on me."

Green Bus Lines' mechanics make sure to send a newer bus out of the garage on Meade's route when she rides. This is tough, because although the accepted life span of a bus is about 12 years or 500,000 miles before it needs to be replaced or refurbished, more than half of the buses operated by the private companies are over 12 years old. Roughly one-third are more than 17 years old, according to a City Council analysis.

"These buses are dinosaurs," says Barry Lotto, who drives the Q35 route from Flatbush, Brooklyn to Rockaway, Queens. "When it is raining outside, it rains in the buses." And drivers often end up taking heat. When the bus is dirty or broken, Lotto says, "the first thing [passengers] want to do is break your head." In Lotto's case, that actually happened: An enraged rider, he says, hit him in the head with the butt of a revolver.

Meade has been more patient. Two or three times in the past year, the lift on her bus has gotten stuck after it had worked to get her on--not only did the Fire Department have to hoist her down, but her fellow passengers were delayed more than a half hour each time. In the winter, Meade says, the lifts often freeze up. Twice this February, she's had to wait while two buses in a row with broken lifts passed her by.

_______

Since 1997, when the Giuliani administration implemented the One Ride, One Fare program, the demand for service on the private lines has increased dramatically. With uniform fares and free transfers from the subway and city-run buses, ridership grew by 20 percent on most private routes, according to Jamie Van Bramer, spokesperson for Green Bus Lines. But the increased demand was never met with an expansion of the fleet or routes. The companies say service has slowly declined on the seven private lines ever since.

Bloomberg and other city leaders say streamlining the system under MTA would provide better service and cost less in the long run. But the city can't force MTA, a state agency, to take up the 82 routes along the city's outskirts. Negotiations are at a stalemate, where they have been for more than a year now.

Jordan Barowitz, a Bloomberg spokesperson, says the city will not allocate another $120 million annual transportation subsidy payout to private operators--or to the MTA. But Tom Kelly, an MTA spokesperson, and Beverly Dolinsky, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, expressed skepticism. "The city is just being a bully, trying to make MTA buckle," says Dolinsky, "so it can balance its
own budget."

Members of the Transit Alliance--a consortium comprised of Command Bus Co., Green Bus Lines, Jamaica Bus and Triboro Coach--say they have been excluded from negotiations between the city and MTA and have no idea what the future holds. The Alliance filed a lawsuit against the city in September and has spent thousands of dollars lobbying in Albany against the takeover plan. Jerome Cooper, chair of the Transit Alliance and President of Jamaica Bus, helped spearhead the effort, but doesn't know how long the owners can hold out. "The city," he says, "has done everything it can to encourage these private lines to go out of business."

Given this tension, an MTA takeover is likely to be rocky at best. The private companies own six of the eight outer-borough garages, which the MTA may have a hard time simply buying up. The already cash-strapped authority, which says it is in a budget crunch this year, is faced with estimates that a complete takeover would cost roughly a billion dollars. The mayor's dream of a system that saves money and serves riders could still be years away. "Residents are already being shortchanged," Queens Borough President Helen Marshall says through a spokeswoman. "This is only getting worse."

Members of the City Council, including Transportation Committee chair John Liu, are growing frustrated with the pace of negotiations and say they are opposed to writing another piece of legislation extending the current operating agreement. "I think the first thing is that the mayor has to make a decision here," Councilmember Addabbo says. "As long as he is negotiating with the MTA, service is not going to improve."

Tommy Hallissey is a Long Island--based freelance writer.