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The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority and the Transport Workers Union Local 234 reached an agreement Sunday night that finalized a one-year contract, narrowly skirting a strike that union workers had been threatening for almost a month.

Union workers did not detail their demands but said that SEPTA should provide the organization's 4,700 workers with a "reasonable" wage rate and adequate health care benefits in the face of the perennial fiscal difficulties that Pennsylvania transit systems face.

SEPTA said in January that it expected a $70 billion deficit in fiscal year 2005.

While the exact terms of the contract -- still subject to the approval of the SEPTA board and Local 234 -- have not been made public, the contract is expected to allow SEPTA workers to retain their current health care benefits. Earlier in the bargaining process, SEPTA officials mentioned the possibility of cuts in the health care program.

It will also give employees a $1,000 bonus, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

"We are greatly relieved that a strike was avoided," said Barbara Grant, spokeswoman for Mayor John Street. "A SEPTA strike is devastating to our employees and to our kids who go to public school."

SEPTA Board Chairman Pasquale Deon Sr. and Union President Jean Alexander issued a joint statement saying that they would continue to "jointly strive for a solution to the budgetary crisis facing SEPTA and all public transit agencies in Pennsylvania."

The statement also noted that "the document approved by the negotiators is not an extension of the existing contract, but is a full and binding contract."

Still, the issues that transit employees and SEPTA confronted this year are likely to arise again. Fare increases and service cuts are expected following SEPTA's announcement this month of its 2005 fiscal plan, according to the Inquirer.

SEPTA receives a subsidy from the city, Grant said. However, funding for public transportation is provided at the state level.

It would therefore be up to Governor Ed Rendell's office to alleviate SEPTA's budget woes.

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