Mediation planned for this afternoon

Britt Johnsen

The first negotiations over the transit strike since it began March 4 will take place at 1 p.m. today, a union official said.

The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005 announced the meeting Friday, which will take place at the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services in St. Paul. The meeting is the latest in a series of efforts to stabilize the situation.

Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell said that until the union recognizes the council’s lack of finances, there are few other options in reaching an agreement.

“We are going back at the insistence of a mediator,” he said. “We don’t have any resources to put on the table. I see little need for us to sit back down to the table unless there is a recognition on the part of the union.”

Union president Ron Lloyd said the union remains adamant about the issue.

“We certainly would like to get an agreement,” Lloyd said. But “we will be here as long as it takes.”

Met Council oversees Metro Transit. The Met Council and the union are disputing over a contract, mainly regarding health-care issues.

Transportation options

Funding for all transportation remains an issue. University officials met at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs on Friday to discuss transportation funding. Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., and transit authorities discussed funding options.

Dayton spoke to a room full of transportation officials and others at the Humphrey Institute. He argued highway expansion and improving roads are among some of the answers to transportation troubles.

Meanwhile, others argued that expanding highways would take away some affordable housing.

“These are tough decisions and trade-offs,” Dayton said.

As debates continue, plans to cope with the strike develop. Minneapolis announced on Friday it will allow bicycles on Nicollet Mall beginning at 6 a.m. today.

According to a news release from the city, bicycles are usually banned from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays in the downtown Minneapolis area because of bus traffic. The effort will end when the bus strike ends, the release said.

Transit finances

Other ways of coping with the strike include a plan announced by the governor. Gov. Tim Pawlenty unveiled a plan called the Transit Grant Assistance Program on March 12.

Under this plan, those who cannot drive or do not own a car will be able to get transportation through social-service agencies. The social-service agencies are then reimbursed with the grant money.

The agencies could be reimbursed up to $100,000 a week, Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons said. He said the money comes from the $220,000 Met Council saves each day by not running buses.

Last week, the grant program expanded, approving an extra $200,000 to increase services within Metro Mobility, which provides transportation to those with disabilities.

Another aspect of the expansion includes an extra $10,000 per week given to metro-area dial-a-ride programs. Gibbons said the service is for those who do not have cars or cannot drive.

Thus far, participants include Anoka County Traveler, Lake Area Bus and groups in other Twin Cities suburbs.

Those not participating in the grant program include the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. It strongly encouraged all 1,400 members of its agency last week not to get involved in the strike’s politics.

Jon Pratt, the council’s executive director, said although accepting grants is not against any policy, it allows the group to get “too close to the middle of the argument.”

Bonnie Kollodge, a Met Council spokeswoman, said 14 social-service agencies have applied for the grants and 10 contracts are in place.

She said this is a “modest effort and won’t replace the Metro Transit system.”

Voices of concern

Debates from all sides roll on as the strike continues. More than 1,000 people attended a rally in support of the strike Thursday at the State Capitol.

The rally heated when union president Lloyd and other officials went into Pawlenty’s office and demanded to speak with him.

“If he’s got money to build two stadiums, he’s got money for transit,” Lloyd said.

Carol Ness, receptionist in Pawlenty’s office, said the governor was not available, but there were request forms they could fill out to schedule a meeting with him.

When strikers and other attendees entered the building – which officials said was outside their rally permit – the state patrol told people to go back outside, where rally signs were legal and where they were permitted to rally.

“It’s their right to be at the Capitol,” Minnesota State Patrol Lt. Mary Schrader said. “But they can’t disrupt.”

What will happen from here and what it will take for the parties to reach an agreement remains in question, said John Budd, human resources professor at the Carlson School of Management.

Budd said Met Council has to come up with transportation alternatives if the strike continues.

“If it goes on for months, ultimately, Met Council has to figure out if it is going to offer bus service,” he said.

But, he said, there needs to be a stronger voice for a decision to be made.

“For those people who are really severely affected, it’s a huge pain for them, but for the general public it doesn’t seem to be a big deal,” he said. “So really, there’s no end.”