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Bay Area commuters brace for another BART strike

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    Commuters waited in standstill traffic to pay their tolls on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in Oakland, Calif. on July 1. San Francisco Bay Area commuters braced for the possibility of another train strike as the Bay Area Rapid Transit agency and its workers approached a deadline to reach a new contract deal.

OAKLAND, Calif. » San Francisco Bay Area agencies are preparing ways to get commuters to work if Bay Area Rapid Transit workers strike on Monday, but officials say there’s no way to make up for the idling of one of the nation’s largest transit systems.

If BART employees walk off the job, transit agencies are planning to increase bus and ferry service, keep carpool lanes open all day and hand out coffee gift cards to encourage drivers to pick up riders.

But officials warn those measures won’t be enough to make up a shutdown of the BART system, which carries more than 400,000 commuters a day.

"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."

Meanwhile, Bay Area Rapid Transit and its two main unions are negotiating in hopes of reaching an agreement by a midnight Sunday. The parties are scheduled to return to the bargaining table at 10 a.m. today after recessing for the night Friday.

Antonette Bryant, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, said no progress was made during Friday’s negotiations, which ended earlier than she had expected.

"Our team is giving it our best shot. We really do not want to disrupt service Monday," Bryant said today. "We want a deal. We will do whatever it takes."

BART spokesman Rick Rice said agency managers are hopeful they can reach a deal before Monday or continue negotiations without a rail shutdown.

"We’re making every effort possible to avoid any disruptions on Monday," Rice said today.

Key sticking points in the labor talks focused 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 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.

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

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