SEPTA management and officials of its largest union will return to the bargaining table tomorrow to try to avert a strike by bus, subway, and trolley operators. The contract with Transport Workers Union Local 234 expires March 15.

Two months of sporadic talks have made little progress.

"We are as far apart as we were before the start of the process," TWU president Willie Brown said today. "Our demands have been ignored."

SEPTA is preparing a strike-contingency plan for riders, agency spokesman Richard Maloney said. Essentially, the plan will direct passengers to Regional Rail lines, which a strike would not affect.

In 2005, the union went on a seven-day strike that halted bus and subway service.

The contract, which covers about 4,700 operators and mechanics in the City Transit Division, will set the pattern for negotiations with SEPTA's other unions and could influence negotiations between the city and its unions.

The TWU is seeking 6 percent annual raises and a $25-per-month increase in pension payments for each year of service.

SEPTA has not made a wage-and-benefits offer, but its proposed budget for next fiscal year assumes a 3 percent increase in labor costs and a nearly 8 percent increase in fringe benefits.

Brown said the TWU was seeking changes in subcontracting and training provisions of the contract to allow TWU members to do more warranty and other repair work now done by outside workers.

"Those things are more important to us than wages," he said. "We have to get job security for our members."

And he said the union wanted neutral arbitrators to rule on grievances. Brown said TWU workers were unable to get fair treatment from SEPTA supervisors.

"They don't treat us with respect. . . . It's always 'my way or the highway' with them."

SEPTA officials have said the weak economy and new uncertainties in state funding would affect SEPTA's ability to meet labor's requests.

The value of SEPTA's pension fund for its employees has dropped from $800 million to less than $478 million in the last year. And a decline in state sales-tax receipts and the state's failure to put tolls on I-80 or lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike threatens to reduce SEPTA's funding from the state, which provides about half the agency's $1.1 billion operating budget.

SEPTA bus, subway, and trolley operators earn from $14.54 to $24.24 per hour, reaching the top rate after four years. Mechanics earn $14.40 to $27.59 an hour.

TWU members contribute 1 percent of their pay to their medical-insurance coverage.

Contracts expire in early April for about 720 SEPTA employees in the Suburban Transit Division.

SEPTA unions have gone on strike 11 times in the last 33 years.

Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum

at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.