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BART Strike a Nightmare for Commuters

September 09, 1997|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Bay Area commuters were plunged into transportation hell Monday, the first workday after 2,600 workers with the Bay Area Rapid Transit system went on strike.

Normally, 275,000 people ride the BART all-train system every day. But not a single train was running on the system's 93 miles of track Monday morning.

Desperate commuters jammed ferries or crowded into hastily created carpools while others daring enough to take the trip alone ended up circling the city in search of what was rarely found--a parking space. Bus riders reported waiting up to an hour, watching bus after packed bus pass them by. Some of the luckiest did their jobs from home while others just gave up and took the day off.

Monumental traffic jams began blocking freeways leading into San Francisco by 5:30 a.m. and lasted up to five hours. At the peak of the commute, traffic was backed up more than 10 miles from central Contra Costa County west toward the toll plaza of the Bay Bridge. Drivers waited more than 40 minutes to pay their $1 and crawl across the bridge into San Francisco.

"It's terrible," said Kathy Madden, a building manager in San Francisco who got off the ferry from Oakland on Monday morning looking angry and exhausted. "My commute on BART normally takes 50 minutes. I've been at it for three hours this morning, and I still have to walk up to my building."

Unless the strike is settled, Madden said, she will take vacation time and stay home the rest of the week. "This can't go on for long," she said. "It is too crippling."

The evening commute out of the city was no better. As early as 3 p.m., San Francisco streets feeding Interstate 80, the freeway that leads to the Bay Bridge, were thick with drivers hoping to beat the traffic. They didn't.

The UMX Coliseum in Oakland, where the Oakland Raiders were scheduled to play a sold-out game beginning at 6 p.m. against the Kansas City Chiefs, reported its parking lot full by mid-afternoon. Fans normally rely heavily on BART to get to Raiders' games and Coliseum officials had urged ticket holders to carpool to the game.

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The trigger for all the misery is a dispute over wages and a two-tier pay system for workers. Last week, BART unions turned down what management called its final offer of a 3% annual raise for the next three years, saying that was not enough.

At a news conference Monday morning, Mayor Willie Brown offered his services as an informal mediator. BART management and the three unions involved quickly accepted. They canceled a session with a state mediator in favor of sending BART board Vice President James Fang and union leaders to City Hall on Monday afternoon. The meeting lasted 90 minutes.

The mayor told reporters he wants to end the strike quickly, before it damages San Francisco's booming economy. But there was no indication that a breakthrough was imminent.

Outside City Hall, downtown parking garages and lots reached capacity by 8 a.m. Hundreds of frustrated commuters, turned away from the full lots, prowled for street parking--a rarity even on normal days in San Francisco.

In the financial district, the Embarcadero Center said its 2,100-space parking garage filled 90 minutes earlier than usual. The shopping and office complex put attendants at its self-operating garage gates, and turned away what Chief Operating Officer Dennis Conaghan called "transient" parkers in favor of those with monthly permits.

Many commuters expressed anger at BART workers--already the highest-paid public transportation employees in the state--in comments to radio call-in shows and to reporters.

"Don't get me talking about the unions," said Susan Unrath, a supervisor at a garment manufacturing company whose 30-minute commute from Berkeley grew to an hour. "They are extremely greedy."

Maintenance workers earn a base wage of $48,000 a year and train operators and station agents earn $40,900. Maintenance workers for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority earn $44,720 and train operators earn $40,414, said Raman Raj, managing director for employee and labor relations. MTA bus operators recently accepted a 1.5% annual raise, he said.

In a statement issued Monday afternoon, BART President Margaret Pryor said the strike was "about very well-paid workers who have a generous offer on the table which would keep them among the best-paid transit workers in the nation and yet they are striking for even more."

Daniel Beagle, a spokesman for Service Employees International Union Local 790, which represents BART mechanics and clerks, defended the wages as being fair for workers living in one of the nation's most expensive regions.

"What is highly paid here in the Bay Area?" Beagle asked. "If a top mechanic is making $48,000, you've got to pay that kind of money to get the kind of system you want. That's what it costs."

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