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Bay Area Commuters Cope With BART Strike

Transit: Rush hour starts at 4:30 a.m. as drivers leave home early. Carpools increase and ferry lines add boats.

September 10, 1997|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Day 3 of the Bay Area Rapid Transit District strike found commuters learning to cope without the trains that 275,000 people normally ride every weekday.

Even as Mayor Willie Brown declared Tuesday that the strike was "already a crisis" for San Francisco, and an Oakland Tribune headline said, "Life without BART: It stinks," people were finding creative ways to carry on.

Commuters plugged in home computers, joined carpools, piled onto ferries or packed themselves into standing-room-only buses as Brown hosted a second round of talks between BART officials and the three striking unions.

Those determined to drive left home early, awakening in the dark and creating rush hour at the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge by 4:30 a.m. In a repeat of Monday's commute, long lines of cars backed up for miles from the bridge's toll plaza on the Oakland side of the bay.

But this time, motorists seemed to get through faster than they did the day before, said Colin Jones, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.

"People get creative. They've adjusted their commute," Jones said.

There has been a 63% increase in the number of carpools and van pools using the bridge's four carpool lanes, Jones said. Commuters reported cutting commutes that took a nightmarish three hours Monday to an hour or less Tuesday.

Kin Ho, California Highway Patrol supervisor at Caltrans' regional transportation management center in Oakland, said he was amazed to see traffic clearing on East Bay freeways by 8:15 a.m. Tuesday.

"I think we need to give the motorists more credit than some have given them," Ho said. "They are planning ahead, and they are digging in for the long haul, finding alternate routes and alternate transportation."

Ferry lines added more and bigger boats to carry the thousands who crowded the vessels to cross San Francisco Bay. Thousands more riders shared their cars with strangers they met through one of several carpooling hotlines that were jammed with calls Monday. And still more waited patiently for buses that were running far behind schedule.

"People in the Bay Area are pretty resilient," said Bill Hein, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the regional board responsible for coordinating public transit in nine counties that ring the bay.

Some residents and newspapers have accused the commission of failing to do enough to prepare for the strike. But Hein said the region's 17 transit agencies had prepared the best they could during the summer, when negotiations between BART and its 2,600 workers bogged down over pay issues.

"There was a lot of preparation," he said. "The difficulty was that the transit operators did not have the capacity to respond."

AC Transit had no spare buses to add to its 700-strong fleet that serves Contra Costa and Alameda counties. Its buses experienced a 500% increase Tuesday in ridership over the Bay Bridge, said spokesman Mike Mills, "and we still have 230,000 on this side of the bay we have to move every day. People forget that our focus is on commuters, schoolchildren, sick people, vacationers and seniors in two counties of the East Bay, not on getting people across the bridge into San Francisco."

Although bus riders were waiting in long lines to stand up for a commute of an hour or longer across the bridge, Mills said, surprisingly few were complaining.

"Our drivers have reported no incidents," he said. "There are some people who have just never ridden before, who need help, but no problems."

State Sen. Quentin L. Kopp (I-San Francisco) said Tuesday that he would push for legislation making strikes by public transit unions illegal, and he called for the Bay Area's transit districts to cooperate more closely with each other. In 1985, the state Supreme Court ruled it legal for public employees, except public safety workers, to strike.

BART mechanics, clerks, train operators and other employees walked off the job Sunday after rejecting a management offer of a 3% annual raise for the next three years. The unions also want to eliminate a two-tiered wage system, which pays new employees less than veterans who do the same job.

The last BART strike, in 1991, lasted 75 minutes. But a strike in 1979 went on three months. Some regional transportation officials fretted privately Tuesday that Brown's intervention might actually delay a settlement, noting that union negotiators have chosen to go to the mayor's meetings instead of attending negotiating sessions called Monday and Tuesday by a state mediator.

Officials from BART and the unions resumed negotiations at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in Oakland and were later joined by a state mediator. Both sides said they were willing to negotiate through the night if necessary.

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