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Bay Area traffic grinds to a halt as BART workers strike

Alternate Routes into San Francisco are jammed as Bay Area Rapid Transit workers strike after talks break down.

July 01, 2013|By Maria L. La Ganga and Lee Romney
  • Commuters wait to pay their tolls on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge on Monday. Talks between BART and three unions broke down early Monday morning.
Commuters wait to pay their tolls on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge… (Ben Margot / Associated…)

SAN FRANCISCO — Wayne Phillips did everything but swim as he struggled to get to his tech job in this city's Financial District on Monday morning.

His usual smooth ride on a Bay Area Rapid Transit train was derailed by the system's first strike in 16 years. So Phillips drove from the East Bay city of Concord to Oakland. He stood in a "quarter-mile-long" line for a ferry. Then he gave up and jumped on his own boat, a 30-foot Bayliner named Lovin' Life.

"I boated to South Beach Harbor and then took MUNI," Phillips said, referring to the local bus, trolley and cable car system. "It was the first time I've done that.... I was waiting in that line, and I realized I would have gotten here at 11 a.m."

Talks between BART management and two of its unions broke down Sunday night, causing the 104-mile system to grind to a halt and leaving 400,000 weekday riders scrambling.

More buses were added around the region, more ferries scooted across the bay, more casual carpoolers opened their vehicle doors to strangers and more telecommuters worked from home. But traffic reports still described the Bay Bridge as "worse than a parking lot" during the morning commute.

To Fernando Leal, who does electronics work for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the strike was an eye-opener about how badly coordinated the region's transit system is. The 61-year-old usually takes BART from Oakland to San Francisco, but on Monday he was searching for a bus instead.

"I can't get a bus at the [Rockridge] BART station," he said, speaking as a frustrated commuter who had to get up an hour earlier and pay a dollar more. "I have to get a bus somewhere else and find a place to park my car … and then walk to MUNI. We're very dependent on BART."

At a news conference Monday afternoon, Gov. Jerry Brown declined to elaborate on the brief written statement by his spokesman the night before as talks between the Service Employees International Union Local 1021, the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 and BART management broke down.

"BART and its labor unions owe the public a swift resolution of their differences," spokesman Evan Westrup had said. "All parties should be at the table doing their best to find common ground."

But areas of agreement were in short supply as union members and management blamed each other for the strike, the difficulties endured by Bay Area commuters and lack of a timetable for negotiations to resume.

The biggest sticking point is money. The unions initially had asked for a 5% raise per year for three years, with inflation protection. BART's most recent counteroffer, proposed Saturday, was for 2% in raises each year over the four years of the contract.

"We are sorry people's lives have been disrupted by the union strike," BART spokesman Rick Rice said after the snarled morning commute. "This strike is not necessary, and we call on union leaders to end it and join us at the table so the Bay Area can get moving again."

Antonette Bryant, president of ATU 1555, which represents train operators and station agents, said: "Our members aren't interested in disrupting the Bay Area, but management has put us in a position where we have no choice."

Beyond the inconvenience felt by commuters — according to census data, San Francisco's population swells by 21% each weekday — the strike's overall effect on the region was unclear. Much depends on how long the work stoppage lasts.

Bob Linscheid, president and chief executive of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, met with Mayor Edwin Lee and other business leaders Monday. The strike, Linscheid said, is "a disruption beyond what anybody imagined."

The Bay Area Council, a public policy organization that advocates for business in the nine-county region, estimated the economic cost of the strike at $73 million each day in lost worker productivity. That figure does not include the cost of consumers staying away, workers not buying lunches or other effects.

But John Goodwin, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, said that although Monday was certainly "a tough day … it could have been much worse."

The Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District also had been poised to go out on strike at midnight after a contract with bus operators and mechanics expired. Instead, the agency added more buses to help carry Bay Area commuters to work.

Spokesman Clarence Johnson said he wouldn't rule out the possibility of a strike Tuesday, but he added that "there has been some progress reported, so that's an encouraging sign."

BART also found 58 buses and offered free round-trip, chartered rides to an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 passengers, depending upon traffic. Those buses left Monday morning from stations in El Cerrito, Walnut Creek, Dublin/Pleasanton and Fremont.

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