Free from the strike threats of past years, SEPTA and Transport Workers Union Local 234 negotiated peacefully yesterday - working to hammer out a contract before the current one expires at 12:01 a.m. Sunday.

TWU Local 234, which represents 4,700 operators and mechanics in SEPTA's City Transit Division, staged a seven-day strike before settling with SEPTA during the last contract negotiations in 2005.

"Times are rough out there," SEPTA General Manager Joseph M. Casey said yesterday. "I don't think that they [Local 234 members] want to go on strike. So, I'm optimistic that we can reach an agreement.

"Whether that will happen by [midnight] March 14th or not, I don't know," Casey said. "But I'm confident that we'll get it done."

Local 234's president, Willie Brown, said: "With the economy the way it is, we really don't want to go on strike. When [Sunday] comes, I'm willing to keep on working, keep on talking, until we get a contract.

"We can't just suddenly walk out without a strike-authorization vote," he said. "I have not called for a strike-authorization vote because we want to get this done without a strike."

If there is no agreement by 12:01 a.m. Sunday, both sides can agree to extend the current contract while they continue negotiating.

Casey said the big issues are wages, pensions and health care. "All three will remain on the table until we have a contract," he said. *