Negotiations aimed at avoiding a walkout at the nation's largest commuter railroad resumed Wednesday after Gov. Andrew Cuomo prodded both sides to find an agreement that would keep 300,000 daily riders from being forced to find alternate ways of getting in and out of New York City.
"We must do everything we can to prevent Long Islanders from being held hostage by a strike that would damage the regional economy and be highly disruptive for commuters," Cuomo said in a statement Wednesday morning.
Shortly afterward, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and unions representing 5,400 Long Island Rail Road employees agreed to return to the bargaining table following a two-day hiatus.
Negotiators from both sides met at a Manhattan law firm Wednesday afternoon.
"It's a good sign that they're at the table talking," MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said after about two hours of talks. "The fact that they're both in the room shows that both sides are doing more than they did yesterday."
There was no immediate indication how long the talks would last.
The unions have threatened to strike at 12:01 a.m. Sunday if they do not get a deal.
Workers have been without a contract since 2010. President Barack Obama appointed two emergency boards to help resolve the dispute, but the MTA rejected both nonbinding recommendations. The emergency board's last proposal called for a 17 percent raise over six years while leaving work rules and pensions alone.
The MTA offered a 17 percent wage increase over seven years, but also wants pension and health care concessions, which both sides agree is the sticking point holding up an agreement.
MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast has said his negotiators are trying to find an agreement that would avoid a potential rate increase in the future.
The sides held a brief session Monday in Manhattan before they declared that negotiations had broken down, primarily over the issue of making future LIRR employees contribute to their health and pension plans.
A walkout would affect nearly 300,000 daily riders, creating a commuting nightmare in and around the nation's largest city.
Until now, Cuomo had appeared reluctant to insert himself into the dispute, but on Wednesday called for action by both sides.
Anthony Simon, the unions' chief negotiator, told The Associated Press in an email that they were returning to negotiations at the request of the governor and that they hadn't wanted to stop negotiating in the first place.
The state comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, has estimated a strike would be a "devastating blow" to a region that is still struggling to recover from Superstorm Sandy and the recession. He estimated economic losses of $50 million a day.
Riders have complained that the MTA's contingency plans for a possible strike may be inadequate. The MTA has encouraged those who can to work from home. It has arranged for commuters to use large park-and-ride parking lots in Queens, where they can access subway stations.
The plan also calls for school buses to be deployed at select LIRR stations on Long Island, where commuters will be transported to subway stops.
Elected officials on eastern Long Island said few arrangements have been made to accommodate travelers to the Hamptons or other tourist destinations. A Southampton town spokeswoman said 10,000-12,000 people travel by train to eastern Long Island each weekend during the peak summer season.