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In Philadelphia, a scramble for transit

Strike grounds city, suburban public systems

PHILADELPHIA -- Commuters laced up their walking shoes, pedaled bicycles, squeezed into car pools, and hitched rides yesterday as a transit strike brought the city's buses, subways, and trolleys to a halt.

Nearly half a million people had to find other ways to get to work or school after contract talks broke down late Sunday between the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority and the Transport Workers Union. One in three households in Philadelphia has no car.

''I'm not happy. How can you be happy?" Chris Hambrose said as he waited for a ride from his home in South Philadelphia to his job in North Philadelphia, a trip that normally takes 14 minutes by subway. ''But if these people feel that they have to strike, you can't take that away from them."

Carol Bridges of South Philadelphia walked all the way up Broad Street to her job downtown. ''I don't like it, but it's good exercise," said Bridges, 51.

No new talks were scheduled between SEPTA and the union, which represents about 5,000 employees. A second union, representing 300 suburban transit employees, also took part in the strike.

Commuter rail lines continued operating because their employees are covered under a separate contract.

The Philadelphia school district said most students and teachers found ways to get to class yesterday. About 27,000 of the district's 185,000 students receive free or subsidized transit tokens.

Wages, work rules, and a healthcare plan were the main issues in dispute. The two sides also could not agree on pension issues and disciplinary procedures.

SEPTA said union leaders rejected the transit agency's healthcare proposal, which would have required employees to pay 5 percent of the premium. Workers currently pay nothing, SEPTA said. The offer included a 9 percent pay raise over three years.

The union said its members have not had a raise since December 2003 and have fallen far behind the norm for employees of major transit agencies.

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