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A look back: For commuters, Day One of 2009 SEPTA strike was a day that went from bad to worse

At Suburban Station, a long line of commuters waits for the next Regional Rail train. Upstairs, many waited in long lines for platform access.
At Suburban Station, a long line of commuters waits for the next Regional Rail train. Upstairs, many waited in long lines for platform access. KRISTON J. BETHEL / Staff Photographer
At Suburban Station, a long line of commuters waits for the next Regional Rail train. Upstairs, many waited in long lines for platform access. Gallery: A look back: For commuters, Day One of 2009 SEPTA strike was a day that went from bad to worse

Editor's note: The following story about the impact felt by commuters on the first day of a SEPTA strike was originally published in the Inquirer on Nov. 4, 2009.

 

The impact of SEPTA's predawn strike started out bad and only got worse.

Early-morning travelers, many trying to get to jobs in the suburbs, were stranded at bus and subway stations, left to work their cell phones for rides from friends or relatives.

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  • Taking to the roads, morning commuters clogged Center City intersections and caused backups of up to an hour over the bridges from New Jersey.

    But that was just a warm-up to the evening rush hour, which brought a crush of commuters to Regional Rail stations, left streets paralyzed with gridlock, and sent tempers rising.

    And brace yourself: Day Two is expected to be even worse.

    Students at Philadelphia public schools, who are major users of public transit, were off yesterday for Election Day, and that may have lessened the impact of the strike.

    "The real test is [this] morning, when schools are in full session," said MaryAnn Tierney, the city's director of emergency management.

    Mayor Nutter said the city was "ambushed" by the strike. "You can't put a dollar value on the disruption and aggravation," he said. "This is unfair to the citizens of the city."

    The city's 311 Center, which fields complaints and requests, experienced a 40 percent increase in volume yesterday. The city announced extended hours, from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., for today and tomorrow.

    Nutter spent the day meeting with department heads to map out contingency plans - with one of the first tasks being to continue the business of city government.

    The city has set aside remote parking lots - in Fairmount Park, at the Festival Pier on the Delaware River, and in South Philadelphia - for municipal workers and is shuttling them by vans and school buses to the Municipal Services Building.

    To ease the effect of the strike, the city also is allowing some workers to adjust their hours and to use office vehicles for carpools.

    The Police Department has added more traffic police at more intersections, equipping some with manual controls to change lights.

    The Streets Department is stopping all construction on roadways during the daytime, while the Parking Authority is allowing more cabs and limousine services to pick up customers in the city.

    The city also has relaxed parking restrictions in certain areas - allowing such practices as stopping in bus zones to drop off passengers. (The locations are available through www.phila.gov/ready)

    Employers, too, are taking steps to get workers to and from their jobs. Center City hotels chartered six tourist trolleys to shuttle workers in and out of the city.

    About 5,100 train and trolley operators, bus drivers, and mechanics walked off the job at 3 a.m., catching the riding public off guard.

    Many commuters had to cycle to work - or walk.

    The Bicycle Coalition, an advocacy group, is promoting "Bike the Strike" and setting up more areas to park bikes on Dilworth Plaza.

    Many stranded riders have turned to Regional Rail trains, which are not affected by the strike.

    While SEPTA officials said delays lasted only about 30 minutes, commuters reported long lines and long delays.

    By 4 p.m., the scene at Suburban Station was chaotic, as frustrated commuters jammed the concourse only to find they could not get to the platforms.

    Rail employees in yellow vests – some calling into bullhorns - were allowing only small numbers of riders at a time down the stairs. Huge lines extended through the corridors.

    "This is unbelievable," said Nancy Cravetz, 52, a payroll manager in Center City trying to get home to Somerton in time to vote and get to her Tuesday night bowling game.

    Spencer Rand, who teaches legal advocacy at Temple Law School and was waiting for a train to Wynnewood, said the SEPTA strike had disrupted his normal habit of voting before work.

    "We left extra early this morning," he said, indicating his two children, who attend Friends Select School. "I'm going to try when I get home, assuming I get home in time."

    The Committee of Seventy reported only a few SEPTA-related complaints on its election hotline.

    During the evening rush hour at the 69th Street Terminal, commuters who had managed to get that far were still left to consider their options.

    Nicketta Burden, 30, had been dropped off at the station by her boss and was waiting for a bus to take her home to Ridley Park.

    "Everybody is in a recession. Everybody wants a raise. You just can't stop working," she said. "Everybody lost in this game, and they're trying to win. That's what's so crazy, to go on strike. . . . It's just selfish."

    The strike came after a weekend of talks ordered by Gov. Rendell.

    Jim Hansen, a security guard in Northeast Philadelphia, had taken a bus to work before midnight on Monday, thinking nothing of the possibility that he might not be able to return home the same way.

    He works the midnight shift at a manufacturing plant on Roosevelt Boulevard. About 1 a.m., he got a text message about the strike and ended up having to work a double shift because his replacement was not able to get to work.

    "It's a mess," said Hansen, who got a ride home from a relative.

    The Philadelphia Hotel Association, though, was ready for the strike. It dusted off an emergency plan that it had put into place for the last SEPTA strike in 2005. Sixteen hotels that are members contracted with the Philadelphia Trolley Works to ferry workers in and out of the city.

    Michael Slocum, founder of the bus company, woke up at 4 a.m. to the news that SEPTA workers had walked off the job. "By 6 a.m., we were moving," he said.

    Slocum had six vehicles, including some of the purple Phlash buses, to shuttle up and down Broad Street from Cheltenham to Pattison Avenues, and on Market Street from 69th Street to City Hall, to pick up chambermaids, janitors, bellhops, desk clerks, bartenders, and waiters employed by the city's hotels.

    The shuttles run the routes to accommodate all three shifts, including a late-night sweep to take workers to and from the overnight shift. Yesterday morning, about 350 workers were picked up and dropped off in time for their 7 a.m. starts.

    "It's pretty easy once you realize you don't have to offer door-to-door service," said Ed Grose, executive director of the hotel association.

    "You look at what kind of year these workers have had," he said. "They've seen their coworkers laid off. We want to not only keep our people working, but to make sure our guests have a good experience in spite of the strike."

     


    Contact staff writer Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659 or jlin@phillynews.com.

     


    Contributing to this article were staff writers Kia Gregory, Jeff Shields, Troy Graham and Vernon Clark.

    Jennifer Lin, Jane M. Von Bergen, and David O'Reilly Inquirer Staff Writers
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