By Tim Gaynor
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Transit officials warned thousands of Phoenix area commuters to make alternative rush-hour travel plans because of a bus strike that will start on Thursday after contract talks between union drivers and management collapsed.
Some 40 bus lines serving the Arizona cities of Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa and Tempe will be idled by the walkout, along with some routes through Phoenix itself and Scottsdale.
The Amalgamated Transit Union and management for First Transit, which operates buses for Valley Metro, have been in contract talks since the first of the year over wages, benefits and work rules, the transit authority said.
Valley Metro urged commuters to consider alternatives such as car-pooling or working from home on Thursday morning.
Late on Wednesday, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1433 officials said that 95 percent of its voting drivers had rejected First Transit's latest contract proposal, according to a report in the Arizona Republic newspaper.
Attempts to reach representatives of Local 1433 were not successful, but a spokeswoman for First Transit confirmed that the company's offer had been rejected and that the union had voted to strike.
"We're disappointed in the decision and regret that we have not been able to reach agreement," spokeswoman Jen Biddinger told Reuters.
"We have contacted the federal mediator to determine why the offer was rejected and to explore additional discussions with the union. We are open to continuing negotiation," she added.
In January, Valley Metro contracted with First Transit to serve as the operator of bus service originating from depots in Tempe and Mesa in the east Phoenix Valley.
On July 1, First Transit assumed responsibility for the operations of 40 local, express and circulator routes primarily serving the area. First Transit says it employs a staff of more than 700 operations and maintenance personnel to keep its fleet of 300 buses running.
Local elected officials have urged the two sides to stay at the bargaining table until a settlement is reached, citing disruptions a strike would cause to residents and the business community.
(Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Steve Gorman and Lisa Shumaker)