What if: businesses, workers plan for bus strike

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March 1, 2004 // UPDATED 9:22 am - April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Around 60,000 workers bus Downtown; what will happen if the buses stops running?

A looming bus strike, which could come as early as midnight Tuesday, March 2, could affect 60,000 Downtown workers, leaving them scrambling for a way to get to work. Employers and employees are hastily preparing contingency plans should Metro Transit service stop this week.

When this issue of Skyway News went to press, the union representing 2,200 Metro Transit drivers and clerical workers remained at odds with the Metropolitan Council, which runs Metro Transit. The union rejected a two-year contract offer Feb. 16 that would freeze wages this year, provide a 1 percent raise next year and make workers pay more for their health insurance.

The 10-workday cooling-off period ends Monday, March 1, meaning drivers can legally start picketing the following midnight.

About 90 percent of Twin Cities bus riders use Metro Transit buses. The strike would not affect 108 of the region's 226 bus routes operated by suburban commuter services, many of which come Downtown.

Some of the estimated 60,000 riders who depend on the buses to get Downtown for work or school are arranging for alternative transportation while others are hoping a strike is averted. Meanwhile, Downtown business representative have met with the Downtown Transportation Management Organization (TMO) to develop alternate commuting plans. TMO, a nonprofit, helped businesses make it through the 21-day 1995 strike.

The bottom line for employers: stay flexible and keep in mind that there aren't enough parking spaces for all Downtown workers.

Employers prepare

Cynics believe that bus riders are predominantly poor, so a strike would be easier for many to ignore. That's not true Downtown, where TMO estimates 40 percent of the Downtown workforce -- 60,000 people -- gets here by bus.

One sign of the bus system's economic importance: an employers' brainstorming session, held Feb. 26 at Target's corporate headquarters, 1000 Nicollet Mall.

TMO organized the event, e-mailing and faxing fliers to more than 2,000 Downtown employers. TMO staff members shared lessons learned from the 1995 bus strike, which left commuters without bus service for 21 days. In 1995, employers coped by allowing for flexible scheduling, telecommunicating from home and organizing employee car pools through bulletin-board sign-up sheets, TMO Executive Director Teresa Wernecke said.

"A lot of employers said, 'We're willing to help you and here's how we're going to help you, but bottom line is you need to show up for work and to be here.' And in fact, they did -- everyone was super-impressed with that," she said.

According to a survey conducted at businesses, TMO estimates 40,000 workers drive alone Downtown, parking in lots or ramps -- where, Wernecke notes, there are about 60,000 spaces total. (Metro Transit estimates that about 40,000, or two-thirds of Metro Transit customers own cars.)

Bob Gibbons, director of customer services for Metro Transit, said 75 percent of people who take the bus are headed to or from work. Metro Transit estimates that 60 percent of riders are women. Nineteen percent live in households earning more than $70,000, while 10 percent earn less than $10,000 a year.

The city is also coordinating with state and county transportation officials to accommodate more drivers in the event of a strike. They are encouraging carpooling and steering drivers to ramps and lots on the east and south side of Downtown with available space.

Additionally, Wertjes said officials were considering adding more officers to traffic control detail in the evenings and the morning to ease an anticipated increase in congestion.

With the winter temps steadily climbing out of the subzero territory, some officials encourage workers who live close to their Downtown workplaces to use their own legs to get to work. Jon Wertjes, assistant director of the city's Traffic and Parking Services, said, "We want to encourage those who can bike and walk to do so."

Riders react

Not every rider has a contingency plan.

James Hankins, a barbering student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC), 1501 Hennepin Ave. S., said a service disruption would make his life more difficult. He lives in Anoka, doesn't have a car and hasn't made a strike-contingency plan. "I'm just hoping there isn't one," Hankins said, while standing in a bus shelter on 3rd Street North near Hennepin Avenue.

Meanwhile, Allie Prestley, another MCTC student who waited for a bus a block away on Nicollet Mall, said she supports a bus strike even though she depends on Metro Transit to get around town. "I want them to strike," Prestley said who often takes Route 17 to her apartment in South Minneapolis from Downtown.

She said she might put a pro-union sticker on her crutches she uses to walk around these days because of a knee injury. Hankins, who works as a caller at the Clean Water Action Alliance, 326 E. Hennepin Ave., said she planned on relying on friend's cars to get around this week if bus service temporarily ends.

A family at the same bus stop as Prestley said they depend on the bus and recently sold their car because they found Metro Transit service to be more convenient. Amer and Hela Syed waited with their children, Saif, 4, and Noor, 2, en route to their home in Fridley. Amer Syed, who works as a designer for a construction firm in Plymouth, said the family often stops Downtown for work or to visit the library. "I'm going to take a cab if there's a strike," he said, even though the fare could be several times more expensive than a bus ticket.