Avoiding federal back-to-work legislation, the City of Ottawa and the Amalgamated Transit Union have reached a tentative deal to let an arbitrator end the public transit strike that has paralyzed the nation's capital for 51 days.

Ottawa Mayor Larry O'Brien told CTV Ottawa that all issues - including the contentious scheduling question - will be unconditionally sent to arbitration under the agreement reached Thursday with ATU officials Andr� Cornellier and Randy Graham.

The agreement still needs to be ratified by both sides before the strike officially ends. City council will hold a special meeting on Friday at 11 a.m. The union will hold a ratification meeting as soon as members can receive proper notice.

"Both parties realized that the moment the federal government agreed to take this to legislation, it was over," O'Brien said.

"We agreed very quickly that we could go around all of that, and simply go back to the process of getting those buses on the streets for our citizens."

O'Brien said the arbitrator would find a balanced approach between the two sides, who have clashed on dozens of issues ranging from scheduling control to wages.

"I know citizens have been through a lot, but I think this is the best way to get a fair and reasonable offer," he said. "It was absolutely the only way we were going to reach a deal, and I'm very comfortable we're moving ahead this way."

The city will also continue to seek regulatory changes from Transport Canada on work and rest rules.

Union leaders told an evening news conference that they regarded binding arbitration as an inevitable outcome, despite the continuing gulf between the sides' bargaining positions.

"Everybody wanted to make something happen earlier," Graham said. "We think this is the best solution for us."

City begins preparing for buses, O-Train to return

Although an agreement has been announced, it will still take at least one week to get the first round of buses serviced and back on the roads. The O-Train will take less time because the cars are serviced by Bombardier mechanics.

The city will make announcements over the next three days on how and when OC Transpo service resumes. A barebones Sunday-type service will have to run for several weeks before full schedules resume, said Councillor Rick Chiarelli.

OC Transpo priorities will be major 90-series routes that use the Transitway, 600-series school buses, and other main routes such as the 2, 7, 12, 14, 85, and 86.

Liberals and NDP were prepared to support back-to-work legislation

Thursday's agreement came after Labour Minister Rona Ambrose threatened to introduce back-to-work legislation to end the strike -- which would have also resulted in binding arbitration. An emergency debate in the House of Commons scheduled for Thursday night was cancelled after the deal was announced late in the afternoon.  

Transport Minister John Baird, the MP for Ottawa West-Nepean, said it became clear on Tuesday that the city and union were "not going to put politics aside and come together" once talks collapsed.

The federal government had the back-to-work legislation prepared to enact immediately, Baird added. Marjory LeBreton, the government leader in the Senate, planned to keep the upper chamber in session late Thursday night in case the legislation passed through the House of Commons.

Ottawa South MP David McGuinty said the arbitration agreement reflected the fact that the right to collective bargaining had to be balanced against the public good: missed medical appointments, lost jobs, and stranded students.

"Both sides lost perspective," said McGuinty, a Liberal whose party, along with the NDP, supported the back-to-work legislation.

"The city and the union became very ideologically entrenched. I think they began to understand they lost perspective and that people were suffering."

Drivers, councillors react cautiously

More than 2,300 bus drivers, dispatchers and mechanics walked off the job on Dec. 10. They had been working without a contract since April.

Craig Watson, an OC Transpo driver and a scheduling representative with ATU Local 279, told CTV Newsnet that the public had every right to be frustrated.

"Both parties need to collectively shake their head," Watson said, but added he thought the city "did a lot more wrong than we did wrong."

Another OC Transpo driver told CTV Ottawa that: "It doesn't matter what I say to the people, because I've been talking for 51 days and people still don't understand."

Councillor Diane Deans said the federal government's back-to-work threat forced the ATU's hand.

"I think until the minister acted, the union was not prepared to leave that thorny issue of scheduling to an arbitrator," she said. "(But) there's a real risk to our taxpayers anytime you go to arbitration. You could end up paying more."

A discussion on making public transit at least a partial essential service will need to happen in the future, Deans added.

Maria McRae, another councillor, said both sides need to "learn something" for future contract negotiations.

With a report from CTV Ottawa's Natalie Pierosara