BART trains could go silent Monday

OAKLAND — With workers and management of the San Francisco Bay Area's commuter rail system locked in a contract stalemate, public officials warned Friday that a threatened strike Monday would disrupt the already stumbling regional economy and cripple the commute for hundreds of thousands of residents.

Public officials urged negotiators with the Bay Area Rapid Transit Agency and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, which represents station agents and train operators, to return to the bargaining table and reach a deal.

Gov. Schwarzenegger said state mediators would be available through the weekend to help keep the nation's fifth-largest rail system running.

"There is no reason why Amalgamated Transit Union and BART cannot resolve their issues without punishing the public," Schwarzenegger said.

No new talks were scheduled, although BART spokesman Linton Johnson said the two sides were trying to arrange a meeting.

Friday, BART accused union leaders of not acting in good faith by discouraging members from voting for a tentative contract deal that was rejected earlier this week. Johnson pointed to a memo by union president Jesse Hunt describing the contract proposal as "ugly" and containing downsides.

Hunt did not respond to messages seeking comment. During a brief appearance outside union headquarters, he did not respond to Johnson's accusation but did confirm that officials with the union and transit agency were working on getting back to the table.

The union announced its intention to strike Thursday after BART's board of directors imposed work terms that the union said amounted to a 7 percent pay cut. Two other BART unions have approved new contracts.

Rachel Cameron, a spokeswoman for the governor, said neither BART management nor the union had requested a cooling off period that could avert a strike.

Johnson said BART's board was not inclined to request such a break, hoping rather to resolve any differences now.

A possible strike in 1991 was averted when BART asked then-Gov. Pete Wilson to call for a 60-day cooling off period hours before a strike deadline. The two sides reached a tentative agreement a few weeks later.

Other transportation agencies in the region were preparing to increase service in preparation for a possible strike, but experts still warned the region's freeways and public transit options would be overwhelmed by the 340,000 riders who use BART each day.

"Bottom line: BART riders are on the train for a reason — BART's their best option," said Elizabeth Deakin, director of the University of California Transportation Research Center at the University of California at Berkeley.

"Most can find other options, but if a strike stretches on, patience with these other options will begin to run thin," she said.

The rail line has shut down twice because of strikes since it opened in 1972, once in 1979 and again in 1997. The closure in September 1997 lasted eight days.