Tuesday, November 10, 2009

SEPTA strike over, but fare hikes loom

national insurance contributions

Now that buses, subways, and trolleys are running again after a six-day transit strike, SEPTA riders can brace for the next unpleasantness: a fare hike.

SEPTA has been planning to increase fares in 2010 ever since it last boosted them in 2007. Regular smaller increases are better, SEPTA officials maintain, than infrequent big increases.

The day of reckoning is drawing closer. Raises likely would be scheduled to take effect around July 1, the start of the agency's 2011 fiscal year.

SEPTA won't say how much fares may go up. But the agency has budgeted for a 9.5 percent increase in passenger revenue in fiscal 2011.

A fare increase of that size could mean the cost of a token would go from the current $1.45 to about $1.60, and a weekly TransPass from the current $20.75 to about $22.75.

But nothing's certain.

"If there is a fare increase, we don't know how much it will be," SEPTA spokeswoman Jerri Williams said yesterday. She said it would depend on inflation, ridership, the overall economy, and SEPTA's effort at "fare simplification."

A 10 percent hike could boost SEPTA's base cash fare from the current $2 to $2.20. That would put it behind New York City, Chicago, and San Diego, which are at $2.25, and ahead of Boston ($2 subway/$1.50 bus), San Francisco ($1.75), and Washington ($1.65 subway/$1.35 bus).

SEPTA would have to hold hearings in the region's five counties and get approval from its 15-member board before implementing any fare increase.

Williams was quick to say the new contract agreed to yesterday for bus drivers, subway and trolley operators, and mechanics was not to blame for a fare hike.

There was no wage increase for the first year of that contract, and the $1,250-per-worker ratification bonus is to be paid from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation budget, not SEPTA's.

"It has nothing to do directly with the contract," Williams said of a possible fare increase. She noted that a transportation funding and reform commission in 2006 recommended regular fare increases to keep up with rising costs.

Yesterday, SEPTA passengers generally were happy just to have a ride.

Buses, subways, and trolleys were back on their regular routes after a midnight contract settlement brokered by Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.) and Gov. Rendell.

The new five-year contract for the 5,100 members of Transport Workers Union Local 234 "is essentially the same" as the one rejected by the union leadership a week ago, Rendell said.

Two changes made the difference: an increase in dental insurance coverage - paid for by delaying part of one year's raise - and an agreement to have a joint labor-management committee review any future impact on SEPTA's costs created by national health-care legislation.

"We tried to get it done in time so there could be an announcement during the Eagles game, so people would know before they went to bed," Brady said yesterday. "But we couldn't quite make it in time."

It was nearly 12:45 a.m. before Rendell, Brady, Mayor Nutter, and officials of the union and SEPTA gathered in the lobby of the Park Hyatt at the Bellevue to announce the settlement.

(They would have been there earlier, except their elevator got stuck when it reached the lobby at 12:40. It took three hotel employees about five minutes to pry the doors open and help the riders step a foot up to get out.)

TWU members will vote on the agreement in about a week and a half, said union president Willie Brown.

The provisions of the contract include the $1,250 bonus upon ratification, a 2.5 percent raise in the second year, and a 3 percent raise in each of the final three years.

Also, there is no increase in the workers' health-insurance contributions, which is 1 percent of base pay. The workers' contribution to the pension fund will increase from the current 2 percent of base pay to 3.5 percent over the life of the contract, and maximum pension payments will be increased from $27,000 a year to $30,000 a year.

Brady, who kept negotiations alive by driving back from Washington early Sunday to meet with union officials, said he thought it was crucial to try to settle the contract before the start of another commuting week.

"Once you get past the first week of a strike, you really have problems getting back to the table," he said. "Things start to get bitter."

Brady, a veteran labor leader who has been involved in many SEPTA negotiations, said long-standing ill will between the union and SEPTA management contributed to the difficult negotiations.

"There's a lot of history there, all of it bad," Brady said. "There's not a trust factor there at all."

Rendell had threatened to withdraw nearly $7 million in state funds he had offered to pay for the workers' bonuses if an agreement was not reached by yesterday. The money is to come from a PennDot economic-development fund, he said.

Rendell and Nutter scolded union leaders earlier for rejecting what the governor called a "sensational" contract. And the weight of public opinion seemed to be against the union, with many people complaining the workers were asking for too much in tough economic times.

Early in the strike, Brown said he understood he was "the most hated man in Philadelphia." Brady said that Brown tried to take the name-calling and scorn in stride, but that some epithets went too far.

"He got one call who said he hoped his [Brown's] wife, daughter, and grandchild all got cancer and died on Christmas," Brady said.

As riders returned to their regular transit routines yesterday, they said they were happy to have transit back but miffed that they'd had to endure a strike.

William Cartegena, 47, a social worker who travels daily by subway from Fern Rock to Center City, said he was glad the Broad Street Line was running again but still disappointed in SEPTA workers for the sudden onset of the strike.

"There was absolutely no consideration for commuters," said Cartegena, a member of District Council 47 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. "I'm a member of a union, and I thought it was an embarrassment and a disgrace the way they did it."