By Noel Randewich and Jim Christie
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Commuter rail workers went on strike on Monday in the San Francisco area for the first time in more than 15 years, triggering gridlock on highways and headaches for thousands trying to get to work.
The Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) serves about 400,000 riders daily. Many rely on it to travel to jobs across the region, with busy routes into San Francisco communities on the east side of the bay.
Commuters stood in long lines waiting for specially scheduled buses outside locked train stations in the East Bay, while others cued up at "casual carpool" spots, where drivers and passengers regularly link up to ride into San Francisco.
"It's horrible. I feel for both sides," said Petra Brady, who was picking up strangers in her car to drive in a commuter lane leading to the Bay Bridge, which connects Oakland to San Francisco. "Gosh I wish they'd done this on a Friday instead."
The strike by 2,400 BART workers came after acrimonious talks over wages and benefits broke down late Sunday, just hours before labor agreements expired. Both sides blamed the other for abandoning the talks.
Highway approaches leading to the bridge were clogged with traffic as BART riders turned to cars and buses to get a head start on their morning commutes.
"I left early and I'm just taking my chances on the bus," said Carol Bach, who was waiting for a delayed bus in Oakland. "I'm a little skeptical but I'm just hoping I get to work."
Unionized workers at AC Transit, which operates buses in the East Bay, also saw their contract expire on Sunday but agreed not to strike while negotiations continue.
Local officials added extra ferry service and special buses, but they will serve only a fraction of BART riders. "It's not going to be fun for anyone," said John Goodwin, a spokesman for the regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
BART unions want significant pay rises, while management has sought increased pension and healthcare contributions. Union negotiators say safety protocols have also been an issue.
The two sides remained far apart through months of talks, which broke down repeatedly before resuming Sunday afternoon at the behest of Governor Jerry Brown.
A BART spokesman said the agency had put forward a "fair and responsible" offer that included an 8 percent pay increase over four years that union negotiators rejected and contended that management was not negotiating in good faith.
BART workers last went on strike in 1997, and were on picket lines for six days before a contract agreement was reached.
Union leaders were subdued as they announced the strike at a midnight news briefing. "I pledge that we will do the best we can to come to a quick resolution and get the Bay Area moving," said Rhea Davis, vice president of a Service Employees International Union unit for BART workers.
(Additional reporting by Peter Henderson and Jonathan Weber; editing by Peter Henderson and Doina Chiacu)