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Tentative deal reached to avert weekend strike at nation's largest commuter railroad

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - After four years of negotiations — and weeks of fretting by 300,000 daily riders about a possible strike — unions and management at the nation's largest commuter railroad reached a tentative contract agreement Thursday.

The deal announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who personally got involved in the final hours of the negotiations, gives Long Island Rail Road workers a 17 per cent pay raise over six and a half years but requires them to contribute to their health care costs for the first time.

Cuomo, who is running for a second term in November, hailed the deal as a compromise that protects workers and riders because it calls for no additional fare hikes.

"There was a high degree of agita," the governor said of nervousness over the negotiations. "The good news is there could have been a lot more agita next week" if there had been a strike.

Eight unions representing 5,400 Long Island Rail Road workers had threatened to walk off the job at 12:01 a.m. Sunday. The workers had been seeking a new deal since 2010.

Commuters at Penn Station in Manhattan expressed relief that they would not have to seek transportation alternatives.

"I was really concerned," said Sibel Aras of Port Washington. "It's really good news. I'm happy for them. They deserve it."

Manhattan attorney Douglas Bartner said he was pleased Cuomo stepped in.

"His taking last minute efforts to avert what could be a crisis is good, whatever it takes," Bartner said. "It got done. I hope the terms are fair to employees."

According to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the LIRR's parent organization, the typical salary for a Long Island Rail Road worker is $65,000, and with overtime annual earnings average $85,000. A round-trip peak ticket from central Nassau County to Manhattan currently costs $25 a day; an unlimited trip monthly ticket is $276.

"Both sides have compromised to reach an agreement that gives our employees the raises they deserve while also providing for the MTA's long-term financial stability," said Thomas Prendergast, the MTA chairman.

Chief union negotiator Anthony Simon said his membership was reluctant to strike, but a tough stance was necessary in order to get an agreement.

"This was definitely about the riders," Simon said. "We cared about the financial stability of the railroad as well as the members and their financial stability."

Officials in New York City and Long Island had predicted dire consequences if workers walked off the job.

"All riders feel relief at the announcement of this settlement" said Mark Epstein, chairman of a commuter advocacy group. "We are encouraged by Gov. Cuomo's assurances on fares and the MTA's ability to fund its capital program and look forward to reviewing additional details on the settlement and the way in which it will be funded."

Earlier this week it appeared a strike was imminent when union negotiators and MTA officials said that they had reached an impasse. Commuters fretted over contingency plans that would have had many riding school buses from LIRR stations to subway stops in New York City, or spending hours on clogged New York area roadways.

Cuomo, a Democrat who is running for re-election, jump-started the talks on Wednesday when he appealed to both sides to resume negotiating. The governor held discussions with the sides later that day and on Thursday morning summoned them to his office.

The state comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, had estimated a strike would be a "devastating blow" to a region causing economic losses of $50 million a day.

While commuters were relieved by the deal, few were likely as happy as Mayor Bill de Blasio. The mayor had been criticized for planning to be out of town on a vacation in Italy starting Friday.

Before the agreement was announced Thursday, de Blasio said at event in Brooklyn that he thought the contingency plan for a possible strike was strong and that the impact would have been felt strongest outside the city limit.

"He can take his vacation to Italy," Cuomo said. "I hope he enjoys it. I'm a tad envious."

___

Eltman reported from Mineola.

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