Tens of thousands of public transit riders are stuck in the lurch today, victims of a breakdown in negotiations between the the company that operates Sun Tran and the now-striking employees' union.

Michele Joseph, Sun Tran's director of marketing, said Teamsters Local 104 rejected the new two-year contract proposed by the company. The contract included no wage increase and offered only to cover future increases in the employees' insurance premiums.

Andy Marshall, executive director of Teamsters Local 104, said that out of 376 union employees, 369 voted against the new contract. The strike took effect at 12:01 a.m. today.

"We're willing to settle this," Marshall said. But the new contract gave no assurance against future layoffs, he said.

The previous three-year contract between Professional Transit Management, the company that manages Sun Tran operations for the city of Tucson, and Teamsters Local 104 expired Saturday at midnight after the sides spent all day in negotiations. Joseph said a final contract proposal was presented to the union on Saturday for members' consideration before the Sunday night vote.

Sun Tran officials said there will be some service today.

From 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., there will be limited service on Routes 3, 4, 6, 8, 11, 16 and 29. Route 3 will be an abbreviated run. Schedules will be posted at transit centers and online, and Sun Tran employees will be on hand to answer questions.

The strike does not affect Sun Van or Sun Shuttle services.

Sun Tran has 627 employees, 526 of whom are represented by Teamsters Local 104, Joseph said, and 426 of those are dues-paying members.

Starting pay for a Sun Tran driver is $13.30 an hour. Maximum pay is $18.53 an hour. That equals about $38,500 yearly. Pay for mechanics ranges from nearly $29,000 to about $45,600 yearly.

The possibility of a strike has existed since negotiations began, but neither side has detailed what the sticking points have been.

One potential wrench in the gears has been the city's waffling over whether to transfer control of the Sun Tran and Sun Van transportation systems to the Regional Transportation Authority.

Union representatives and Sun Tran workers have supported the idea - often attending City Council meetings over the past several months to urge the takeover - because of the protection the move would potentially afford them against the budget and personnel cuts facing other city services. The RTA oversees a 2006 voter-approved transit plan and is funded by a half-cent-per-dollar sales tax.

Marshall has previously suggested that transferring control of Sun Tran would save taxpayers money by ending city-funded subsidies to the system, and it would stave off route cuts that could result in as many as 100 Sun Tran employees being laid off.

On Sunday night, Marshall said he believes the city is facing a $7 million shortfall in its 2010-11 budget - a gap that leaves no room to run Sun Tran without layoffs or route cuts.

"If you don't have the money to fund it," he said, "you don't have the money to fund it."

In the past, Marshall has said that some City Council members have suggested the union take a 3.5 percent pay cut in the coming year. That wage cut would be on par with what other city employees have faced due to forced furlough days.

The jury remains out on the benefit to the community of a transfer of Sun Tran and Sun Van to the RTA. An Arizona Daily Star calculation found that the transfer could end up causing a budget shortfall at the RTA of $72 million over 15 years.

RTA Executive Director Gary Hayes has supported the idea of the transfer and said that any budgetary gaps would be filled through federal grants and efficient operating.

Marshall said that the issue of passing Sun Tran off to the RTA will be the top action item at Wednesday's City Council meeting.

Advocates for the poor planned a protest for today, saying that the transfer of Sun Tran and Sun Van to the RTA would cause bus fares to go up - hurting the people who most need affordable public transit.

Where to call

For the latest information on possible service changes, call 792-9222 (TDD: 628-1565) or check www.suntran.com

Contact reporter Clayton R. Norman at cnorman@azstarnet.com or 573-4142.