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Bay Area commuters brace for BART strike
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OAKLAND . (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.

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 issued a 72-hour strike notice. The nation's fifth-largest rail system, BART carries passengers from the Bay Area's eastern suburbs across the water, through the city and to San Francisco International Airport.

The unions — which represent nearly 2,400 train operators, station agents, mechanics, maintenance workers and professional staff — said 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 pressure the agency to avert a second strike and 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 officials said they are disappointed by the strike notice, but they're against the idea of a "cooling-off period," when both sides would not be negotiating. Instead, they'd prefer a contract extension that allows talks to continue without a service shutdown.

"We're against the idea of dragging this out longer," said BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost.

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

— BART, which cannot hire any replacement workers, will hire about 95 charter buses to transport commuters from its train stations. It will offer free parking at its train 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 MTC 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. She will try to shift her work hours if there's a strike next week. "It will be an adventure as long as it doesn't go too long."