Glenn Asakawa  /  AP
Striking Regional Transportation District transit workers gather Monday across from the Colorado State Capitol in Denver to garner support from morning commuters and contract bus drivers, on the first day of their strike.
updated 4/3/2006 8:30:47 PM ET 2006-04-04T00:30:47

Commuters hitched rides with friends, used taxis and rented cars Monday when Denver-area transit workers went on strike for the first time in 24 years.

The Regional Transportation District used private contractors to keep about 45 percent of its bus routes running but closed light-rail operations and a shuttle service stretching along a downtown pedestrian mall.

Traffic flowed fairly smoothly across most highways during the morning rush, but commuters had mixed feelings about the strike.

“I can understand them wanting more benefits and more money — the RTD drivers — and though I sympathize with them, I’ll have to tell you, me and other riders are real upset,” said Sheen Ortega, 55.

The transit system averages about 275,000 rides per weekday.

No new negotiations were scheduled, although Yvette Salazar, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1001 said the two sides met informally Monday. She said RTD declined the union’s suggestion to enter arbitration.

Scott Reed, RTD spokesman, said the agency would offer no additional money but was willing to restructure how it is distributed.

Union leaders had recommended approval of RTD’s contract, which included a wage hike of $1.80 an hour over three years in 15-cent raises every quarter, plus increases in health benefits. However, 55 percent of workers rejected the offer in a Sunday vote, triggering the strike.

Drivers defend, passengers fume
Light-rail operator Gary Welch, 36, who voted to reject the proposal, said RTD could have offered more by cutting waste. He said big raises were given to some managers, while union wages were frozen — a blow to the rank-and-file.

“The people, my passengers, they have to understand, this is not against them,” Welch said. “We got to look after ourselves. We got families like anybody else.”

Commuter Marsha Preheim, who caught a ride to work with her son-in law, said her sympathies are with the strikers. “I kind of have to agree with them because of what I read in the papers about (management) raises,” she said. “It’s like a slap in the face.”

Meanwhile, calls flooded taxicab phone lines while carpooling groups reported an uptick in business. “The phones are ringing. There’s no doubt about it,” said Ross Alexander, president of Denver-Boulder Yellow Cab. “The drivers are having a feeding frenzy now.”

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