After 30 months of negotiating with SEPTA produced three contract proposals that his union's members rejected, the president of the Fraternal Order of Transit Police said that 200 SEPTA cops will strike tomorrow at 2 p.m. unless the transit agency agrees to binding arbitration.

Joined by fellow FOTP officials yesterday, Richard Neal Jr. said that the three rejected contract proposals failed to close the wide gap between SEPTA police pay and benefits and those of Philadelphia police and New Jersey Transit police.

Neal said that SEPTA police start at $31,000 instead of the $39,000 that Philadelphia police rookies get, even though "we work hand-in-hand with city police officers" to fight transit crime.

He said that veteran SEPTA cops earn a top salary of $49,000 while New Jersey Transit police top out in the mid-$60,000s "for doing the same exact job."

Each successive contract proposal, he said, was defeated by a wider margin - the last one by 90 percent of the transit police who voted.

The FOTP, Neal said, is taking "one last step to try to avoid a strike" by asking Commonwealth Court to force SEPTA to submit to binding arbitration.

"We don't think that it's a legal issue," SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney said yesterday. "We have gone through fact-finding with the state mediation bureau. A state mediator has managed this contract negotiation for a long time.

"We are not required by state law to go to binding arbitration," Maloney said. "So I'm not sure what the legal basis of their challenge would be."

Neal said that in the event of a strike, SEPTA planned to replace many of the 200 trained, armed transit cops with unarmed security guards. He said that would compromise riders' safety.

The 19-year veteran SEPTA cop, who has been a FOTP union official for five years, said that SEPTA "doesn't seem to get the value of experienced, trained transit officers."

Fran Keating, SEPTA's chief labor officer, said that "every deal that we've given them has been voted down in increasingly significant numbers - and the deals keep getting better, so it's very odd."

Keating said that the FOTP's request for binding arbitration "came out of nowhere" and that SEPTA rejected it because "we believe that the best place to reach agreement is at the bargaining table.

"I'm trying to set up a meeting with the state mediators," she said. "I'm still hopeful we can sit down. I want to get this thing done." *