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O.C. bus drivers agree to terms, return to work

Union members overwhelmingly OK a new salary structure. OCTA officials hope to have routes fully restored by midweek.

July 17, 2007|Tony Barboza | Times Staff Writer

The Orange County Transportation Authority and its 1,100-member bus drivers union approved a new contract Monday, ending the strike that shut down most of the county's public transit system for nine days.

The transit agency asked its drivers to return to their scheduled routes at noon Monday and said full service was expected to be restored by midweek.

OCTA will continue to let passengers ride free of charge through Thursday as the routes resume normal operation, officials said.

"We are all just delighted that in a matter of a couple of days this strike will be behind us," OCTA Chairwoman Carolyn Cavecche said.

Among other things, some observers say, the strike has forced a reexamination of mass transit in Orange County.

The OCTA board unanimously approved the new contract after Teamsters Local 952 ratified it 696 to 35.

The contract calls for an $18.2-million increase from the previous pact.

It gives raises over three years of 10.8% to entry-level drivers and 11.7% to drivers with five or more years of experience.

The increase in wages and benefits amounts to one-tenth of 1% -- $200,000 -- more than OCTA's pre-strike offer.

"It is a victory for us, but it's bittersweet because so many of our members had to suffer and so many riders had to suffer," said Patrick D. Kelly, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 952.

"It was bad for the public and bad for business."

The bus strike, Orange County's first in 21 years, highlighted the extent to which Orange County's working class relies on the bus system.

The county's 225,000 daily bus riders, 72% of whom don't own a vehicle, walked, biked and carpooled in the buses' absence.

But the walkout also showed that the OCTA, which ranks its ridership as the nation's 12th largest, is still bus-dependent.

Although the agency operates the county's system of carpool lanes and partners with Metrolink to run a portion of its commuter rail system, the number of daily train riders is only 13,000. Additionally, many of the county's carpool lanes do not meet minimum federal standards requiring rush-hour traffic to flow at least 45 mph.

Efforts in recent years to build a more comprehensive countywide rail system have been shelved.

"As Orange County continues to grow and there are more cars and more people, we need to make public transportation as efficient and convenient as possible," OCTA spokesman Joel Zlotnik said. "We need to make it more attractive to commuters."

While the OCTA plans to boost the number of Metrolink trains, pledging service between Fullerton and Laguna Niguel every 30 minutes from 5 a.m. to midnight on weekdays by 2009, most travelers will still rely on the bus.

That fact has recently led the agency to plan three rapid bus lines to take riders along major routes with fewer stops.

The OCTA approved the plan last month, and officials have billed it as a way to approximate the speed and capacity of light rail with the flexibility and low cost of rubber tires.

The strike has caused some to call for a fresh look at commuting alternatives.

"We need to look at different modes of transportation in this county," said Sarah Catz, director of the Center for Urban Infrastructure at UC Irvine.

"We need to look beyond bus and beyond Metrolink."

tony.barboza@latimes.com

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Back on the bus

Bus drivers will receive $3,120 in wage increases over

the next three years under the new union contract. The Orange County

Transportation Authority will continue to pay retirement benefits and

all contributions for basic dental and medical care.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

*--* Agency Entry level Senior Long Beach Transit $12.83 $ 23.33 OCTA $14.20 $22.33 L.A. Metro 13.83 $21.27 N. San Diego Co. $13.76 $21.22

*--*

Source: Orange County Transportation Authority

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