Bay Area commuters brace for another BART strike

AP News
Posted: Aug 02, 2013 9:57 PM
Bay Area commuters brace for another BART strike

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — More ferries and buses will be deployed to get commuters across San Francisco Bay. Carpool lanes will be open all day, not just for rush hour. And gift cards for coffee will be handed out to drivers who pick up riders.

No matter what Bay Area transit agencies do, however, to lessen the impact of a looming strike Monday by Bay Area Rapid Transit workers, officials say there's no way to make up for the idling of one of the nation's largest transit systems.

The nation's fifth-largest rail system, BART carries more than 400,000 commuters a day, keeping them off the roads in a region routinely choked with traffic.

"The inescapable fact is BART's capacity can't be absorbed by the other transit agencies," said John Goodwin, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. "We're still hoping for the best, but it's time to prepare for the worst."

As the union and the transit agency continue negotiations, with key sticking points focusing on worker safety, pensions and health care costs, commuters are bracing for what could be the second BART strike in a month.

When transit workers shut down train service for four days in early July, roadways were jammed and commuters faced long lines for buses and ferries. The unions agreed to call off that strike and extend their contracts until Sunday while negotiations continued.

"I didn't really fully appreciate the magnitude of disruption of my commute," said Oakland resident Benny Martin.

Martin, 32, said the short trip to his law firm in downtown San Francisco took him two hours each way. If BART workers strike next week, he just won't go into the office. "It's just not worth it for me."

A strike next week could cause more traffic mayhem than last month's work stoppage, which came around the Fourth of July holiday.

"Without having a holiday in the middle of the week, there's a potential for much greater congestion on the roadways," Goodwin said.

At a news conference Friday, Bay Area and state officials called on BART managers and union leaders to reach an agreement, saying a strike would create financial hardship for working families and hurt the Bay Area economy.

"We need an agreement and not a strike in our BART Service," San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said. "They need to know that it is no longer a matter of inconvenience to the ridership. It is hardship."

On Thursday, two transit unions— which represent nearly 2,400 train operators, station agents, mechanics, maintenance workers and professional staff — issued a 72-hour strike notice. They plan to participate in labor talks up until the contract expires at midnight Sunday in hopes of averting a strike.

At a meeting of BART's board Friday, union leaders urged the directors to give workers what they called a fair contract.

"I'm here to say we will not be busted," John Arantes, president of SEIU local 1021. "We are more united now than ever before."

BART General Manager Grace Crunican said Friday afternoon the two sides were working hard at the bargaining table, but they remain far apart on wages, pensions and health care. There's still time to reach a deal before the strike deadline, she said.

"Three days is a long time when you've come as far as we have," Crunican told reporters.

Under state law, Gov. Jerry Brown has the authority to seek a court-ordered 60-day "cooling off period" that would temporarily block BART workers from striking.

"The governor is considering all his options and closely monitoring the situation," said spokesman Evan Westrup.

Meanwhile, Bay Area transit agencies and employers are making preparations for a possible strike.

— BART, which cannot hire any replacement workers, will provide 95 charter buses to transport commuters to San Francisco from seven train stations. It will offer free parking at its stations to make it easier for people to carpool.

— The Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District plans to add an unspecified number of trans-bay buses.

— The San Francisco Bay Ferry will increase the number of city-bound ferries in Oakland, Alameda and Vallejo.

— The California Highway Patrol will keep carpool lanes open from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. rather than closing them during the day.

— The Metropolitan Transportation Commission is urging workers to carpool, avoid peak traffic hours or telecommute if possible. The agency will hand out $5 Peet's Coffee gift cards to drivers who pick up riders heading back to the East Bay.

Ridesharing and peer-to-peer taxi services saw a big jump in business during the last BART strike, and they could be even busier if workers strike again next week.

Sidecar, whose mobile app allows drivers to pick up people heading in similar directions, experienced a roughly 50 percent increase in drivers and riders during the last strike, said spokeswoman Margaret Ryan.

"We're gearing up for a big week," Ryan said Friday. "We are mobilizing our drivers and encouraging them to get out on the road next week."

The transit agency has said employees with its two largest labor unions average about $71,000 in base salary and $11,000 in overtime annually. The workers pay nothing toward their pensions. BART says it needs to save money on benefits to help pay for system improvements.

"Although I am a union member myself, I think what they are asking for is a little extreme," said Brenda Cooke, 74, of Concord.


Associated Press writers Martha Mendoza, Jason Dearen and Sudhin Thanawala contributed to this report.