Transit agency asks for negotiations to bring end to walkout

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Philadelphia’s transit agency called on the union representing about 4,700 striking workers Wednesday night to engage in good-faith negotiations to bring an end to the walkout.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority said in a statement that it’s clear the strike is “causing severe hardship” for residents.

“On several occasions this week, SEPTA negotiators believed progress toward a deal had been made,” said SEPTA Board Chairman Pasquale T. Deon Sr. “However, at each of those seemingly positive turns, TWU Local 234 has brought a halt to negotiations.”

Deon also asked the union after talks ended for the night to assure residents that they will suspend the strike on Election day if no agreement is reached.

The union called SEPTA’s statement “outrageous” and was expected to issue an official response later Wednesday night.

The strike began at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, shutting down buses, trolleys and subways that provide about 900,000 rides a day. A current cap on union pension benefits and the amount of time off provided to operators between shifts were among the issues on the table.

Frustrated motorists fought traffic gridlock at morning and evening rush hours Wednesday during the second day of the strike.

Highways around the region experienced major backups as thousands of people who normally take city transit used

their cars instead.

New York businessman Cesar Rivera, 34, said late Wednesday it was “useless” to try to drive out of the city during the evening rush.

“I will be thinking about crashing at a friend’s place if it stays like this,” Rivera said. “Everytime I cross the street tonight it’s been on a green (light) because the traffic has been so bad and hardly moving.”

Regional rail lines experienced delays for a second night as a result of increased demand caused by the idling of city buses, trolleys and subways.

The city’s bike-share program was doing a booming business.

Gabby Richards, 23, said she was relieved Wednesday morning to get the last bike available at the stand near her home.

“There’s a powerful message coming with this strike about how important public transportation is to the city of Philadelphia and to people like me,” Richards said. “I’ve been making my plans each day around Uber surge pricing and traffic. It’s clear that something needs to happen to get people moving smoothly again.”

Uber said it had 41 percent more unique riders during rush hours Tuesday compared with the same day the previous week.

This is the ninth strike since 1975 by the city transit union. The last one, in 2009, lasted six days.

Bus operators walking the picket lines said they were striking to protect their benefits, lift a limit on pension benefits and secure better working conditions.

“We’re on the front lines every day, battling out here with these people getting spit on, punched at, getting called all kinds of names while they (management) sit up in their cushy office doing nothing,” bus operator Andre Rhoads said.

Bus operator Anthony Lindsay said the strikers understand the inconvenience they are causing. “But we also have cousins and mothers and fathers and uncles and nieces and nephews and neighbors who are also suffering with us. So, it shouldn’t last long, but it is what it is,” he said.

The strike is also affecting the Philadelphia school district. SEPTA provides rides for nearly 60,000 public, private and charter school students.

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Associated Press writer Kathy Matheson contributed to this report.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.