The SEPTA police officers' union today asked a Philadelphia court to order binding arbitration in their long-running contract dispute as tomorrow's strike deadline approached.

The approximately 200 transit police have said that they will walk out at 2 p.m. tomorrow if no settlement is reached.

If there is a strike, SEPTA plans to use transit supervisors, Philadelphia police, and private security guards to patrol subway stations and concourses.

Mayor Nutter and SEPTA general manager Joseph Casey said commuters would be safe.

"To suggest, as the union spokesman has done, that SEPTA will be unsafe in the event of a strike is not only irresponsible, it is an insult to Philadelphia police officers and SEPTA police commanders," Nutter said in a statement.

"SEPTA will be safe – that is our commitment. To suggest otherwise is like falsely yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater. It's reckless, dangerous and counterproductive."

Negotiators for the two sides met today to try to avert a strike, said Anthony Ingargiola, spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Transit Police.

The lawsuit, filed in the Court of Common Pleas, said binding arbitration should be imposed because SEPTA police "perform an essential service in protecting the safety and welfare of the citizens of the Commonwealth and their continuous employment is necessary." And it said a strike "would create a significant public danger to the approximately one-half million commuters who ride SEPTA each day throughout the five counties."

SEPTA last week rejected a request for binding arbitration, saying that it "would produce no benefit to these negotiations that have not already been clearly delineated" by a Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board factfinder in March.

The factfinder recommended that the police accept SEPTA's offer, with an additional increase in death benefits for families of officers killed on duty.

The transit officers want the same pay as officers in the Philadelphia Police Department, who start at about $39,000 a year.

The starting salary for a SEPTA police officer is $30,752 a year, with a maximum salary after four years of $49,804, including longevity payments.

SEPTA has offered its police a 3 percent annual wage increase over four years, a boost in longevity pay, and a requirement that police contribute 1 percent of their salary to help pay for health care.

The officers' last contract expired on Sept. 30, 2005, and was extended for one year. The union membership has rejected three tentative agreements.

Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.