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When buses stop, the Valley’s commerce feels the impact

As you surely know by now, bus drivers for the cities of Phoenix and Tempe went on strike March 10. The private sector contractor, Veolia Transportation, and the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1433, met 45 times over 22 months on the Phoenix contract alone before the walkout. Veolia operates transit systems throughout the U.S., has operated bus service in the Valley for the past 35 years and knows our community well.

As a result of the strike, employees — mothers, fathers and family bread winners — arrived late to work, or maybe not at all. Commuters missed their rides to the doctor, university, dentist or local grocery store. And well-paid bus drivers no longer contributed financially to Arizona’s recovering economy.

The ATU, which represents more than 900 bus drivers, left thousands of riders to scramble for alternative methods of transportation — and our community felt the impact immediately. To exacerbate an already critical situation, this strike occurred when more than 271,000 Arizonans are unemployed, dealing a blow to our fragile economy and our psyche.

Fortunately, hard work and round-the-clock negotiations between Veolia and the ATU resulted in an agreement, ensuring a vital component of the Valley’s transportation network remains available to local residents, tourists and small businesses that are the heart and soul of the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce.

Presently, the two-thirds of the bus system operated by Veolia delivers a national-best on-time performance of 97 percent. As the facts came to light, it was also clear Veolia offered an excellent wage and benefits package to the employees. Drivers are well compensated, with Phoenix drivers the highest paid in the Phoenix metro area and among the highest paid among comparable cities in the Southwest. A vast majority of Veolia’s drivers earn more than $50,000 annually — with some earning up to $70,000 — while drivers also receive five weeks of paid vacation and competitive health care benefits.

Thankfully, the sides came together under the strong leadership of Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton. Hammering out union contracts under the glare of public and media scrutiny is a challenge. Negotiators spent hours in a downtown conference room finalizing a deal to benefit the people of Phoenix, Veolia’s professional drivers and the entire Valley.

People in the West may love their cars, but this strike in Phoenix and Tempe proves how important public transportation remains for many Valley residents and our economy. As gas prices hit the $4-a-gallon mark, more people are turning to public transportation (a trend our chamber embraces with free bus and light rail passes for our employees).

Quick resolution to the strike ensures minimal long-term negative impacts. Now, city and transit planners can focus on growing the system and increasing ridership.

Hopefully, Valley leaders and the key players in the transit system learned valuable lessons from this brief strike. Commerce suffers when buses stop rolling, hurting businesses and those most reliant on public transportation. The Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce and our business community will continue to promote a vibrant economic climate that includes a world-class, mass transit system.

— Todd Sanders is president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce.

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