N.Y. transit returns to normal

Commuters feel relieved, merchants anxious for rebound of business before holiday


NEW YORK -- After three long, cold and footsore days, New Yorkers received an early and very welcome holiday gift yesterday as striking transport union members went back to work, restarting the nation's largest transit system two days before Christmas and the start of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights.

Days of growing frustration and anger among many of the system's 7 million daily riders quickly gave way to deep relief and a fresh appreciation of the beauty of a warm bus or subway car.

"Normally, the subway is just the subway, but today everybody was in a good mood - tired but really talking to each other about how they got through it," said Trudy Steinfeld, an administrator at New York University. "I'm real happy it's over."

Steinfeld recounted how it had taken her carpool three hours to get from Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay neighborhood to her job in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, usually a 30-minute ride.

The return of normal service coincided with the start of the long holiday weekend, with many workers taking yesterday off. As a result, the city's streets, jammed with honking cars and lined with trudging armies of pedestrians during the 60-hour strike, suddenly became almost eerily emptier and far quieter.

In a city that lost an estimated $1 billion during the strike, any kind of quiet - especially during the pre-Christmas week that typically provides up to 20 percent of many retailers' annual revenues - is not a good thing.

In Manhattan's SoHo, one of the city's busiest retail districts, Phelgye Keldenall, owner of a Tibetan-style clothing store, expressed relief at the strike's end and anxious hope that shoppers will return for last-minute gifts.

"It's really too bad that they had to choose such a time to let the contract end because Christmastime really does help us pay expenses for the whole year," he said.

Just north in Union Square, where dozens of kiosks selling gifts are set up each December, Richard Young, 50, a jewelry wholesaler, said pedestrian traffic during the strike had been only about a quarter of normal.

"This has had a major impact on our sales. The impact on vendors is really significant," he said. "Hopefully, there will be a lot more traffic today and people will do all right."

Owing to the work of state mediators, 33,700 transit workers returned to work late Thursday, even though a contract has yet to be finalized. By yesterday afternoon, most of the system's 6,300 subway cars and 4,600 buses were up and running.

Leaders of Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union elected to end the strike after assurances by mediators that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state agency that operates the system, likely would remove its demand that workers pay a larger percentage of their wages toward pensions.

Leon Lazaroff writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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