By Associated Press - Saturday, April 5, 2014

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Philadelphia-area commuters can’t breathe a sigh of relief yet as negotiations continue between the regional transit agency and a union representing thousands of bus and subway operators. But both sides said some progress has been made.

Last-minute bargaining ended Friday without a deal, and representatives for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority and Transport Workers Union Local 234 are scheduled to resume talks on Sunday.

SEPTA officials and passengers have been bracing for a strike that could begin Monday. A walkout would be particularly crippling because it’s expected to involve all city transit lines as well as suburban buses, trolleys and the Norristown high-speed line. Commuter rail lines would still operate.

According to the union, points of contention include discipline, use of surveillance cameras, pensions and the effect of the new federal health care law. SEPTA spokeswoman Jerri Williams said only that the discussions involve wages, benefits and work rules.

The agency’s contract with 4,700 employees in the city division - which covers bus, subway and trolley operators - expired March 15.

Contracts covering workers in two suburban SEPTA branches expired Tuesday, and the deal with a third suburban division expires late Sunday night. Those contracts collectively cover about 750 bus drivers, mechanics, and trolley and light rail operators.

The union had called for binding arbitration on Wednesday, a move that SEPTA opposed. Williams said the agency’s leaders don’t want to end up with a contract they can’t afford.

Union president Willie Brown said, “there’s no reason why we can’t get this thing done.”

Transit lines within Philadelphia provide about 825,000 passenger trips on an average weekday, while the suburban fleet offers 75,000.

Though SEPTA’s 13 commuter lines would continue operating in the event of a strike, Williams noted the engineers have been without a contract since 2010.

Those workers are covered by federal railway law and cannot strike until all their mediation options are exhausted, Williams said. That wouldn’t happen for another several months, she said.

SEPTA, the nation’s sixth-largest transit operator, serves Philadelphia and its surrounding counties and has annual ridership of about 337 million.

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