Amid intensifying rhetoric, transit workers and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority scrambled to iron out an 11th-hour deal Thursday as New Yorkers braced for a strike that would leave more than 7 million riders a day looking for alternate transportation.
The two sides remain far apart, and leaders from both groups expressed frustration at their ability to break the impasse.
MTA chairman Peter Kalikow suggested at a news conference that an arbitrator might be the best person to help reach a deal — a statement that infuriated the union.
"Transit workers — our members — have a right to decide their destiny," said Roger Toussaint, president of Transport Workers Union Local 100. He added that the MTA's suggestion to involve a third party "does not bode well for these negotiations."
He said later that the chances of reaching an agreement were "less than 50-50 at this point."
MTA spokesman Tom Kelly told reporters at an evening briefing that there had been no breakthroughs. He described the two sides as being far apart on major issues but said some progress has been made in some areas of negotiation.
Gov. George Pataki urged the union to keep working with the state agency and "bargain in good faith."
"When it comes to a strike I have three words: Don't do it," Pataki said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Meanwhile, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he had packed a bag to stay overnight at the city's emergency command center, where officials were bracing for a chaotic Friday morning rush hour if talks break down.
"We are hoping for the best and preparing for the worst," Bloomberg said.
The MTA and the Transport Workers Union's 33,000 members are at odds on issues including wages and pension contributions. The old contract expires Friday at 12:01 a.m.
The workers want 8 percent annual raises over three years and contend they should get a share of the MTA's $1 billion surplus. And after the transit bombings in Madrid and London, they also want more terrorism training.
The union has offered to reduce its pay raise demand if the MTA would promise to reduce disciplinary actions against workers.
The MTA has proposed 6 percent raises spread over 27 months. It says deficits are predicted for upcoming years and another surplus is unlikely.
Train operators, station agents and cleaners earn between $47,000 and $55,000 a year before overtime.
Estimates are that a strike would cost the city hundreds of millions per day in overtime and lost business and productivity.
A walkout would be illegal under state law. Workers could lose two days' pay for every day on strike. The city is asking for additional damages against individual transit workers: $25,000 for the first day of the walkout, doubling each day thereafter. The city is also seeking damages from the union of $1 million for the first day, doubling thereafter in a similar pattern.
Police overtime alone would cost $10 million a day, the city says, since officers would have to maintain order in the streets.
The city's contingency plan would require cars entering the busiest areas of Manhattan to carry at least four people at certain times. Motorists could pick up extra riders at park-and-ride areas.
Some streets would be closed to all but emergency vehicles. Taxis would be allowed to pick up multiple fares, and commuter rail lines would increase service.
Many companies are encouraging employees to telecommute or work outside the city. Some are arranging buses and ferries for their employees.
"Hopefully it will work out," said midtown clothing store worker Kyle Bazemore, 28, of Brooklyn, emerging from the Grand Central Terminal subway station shortly after Kalikow spoke Thursday. Bazemore was hedging his bets, though: "A friend who works with me said I could stay at her apartment."
The last time New York had a transit strike was 1980, when subways and buses sat motionless for 11 days. Tens of thousands of people mounted bicycles, walked and embraced creative modes of transportation like boats, private helicopters and roller skates.
In 2002, the union and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority tussled over a new contract, but reached a deal hours after the deadline passed.