News Column

BART Strike Sends Bay Area Into Commuter Hell

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The BART strike is on.

Commuters around the Bay Area on Monday were left stuck in freeway gridlock, cramming onto standing room-only buses and cursing the first BART labor shutdown since 1997.

About 200,000 people who ride BART daily -- about 5 percent of the Bay Area commute pool -- were left scrambling to find other ways to get around as all BART trains remained shut down following the end of service early Monday morning.

"It was a rough day out there, just as we had expected," said John Goodwin, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the regional agency that operates the 511 commute-information service. And "we're obliged to operate under the assumption that BART will

be down again tomorrow."

BART and its unions saw their four-year contract expire overnight after three months of failed negotiations, and workers immediately hit the picket lines. A strike will continue indefinitely until BART management and the two unions representing 2,300 blue-collar workers reach a deal.

On Monday morning, neither side had plans to return to the bargaining table as they remained at odds over wage increases and medical and pension benefits.

"We have not heard from the mediator yet, so unfortunately no talks are scheduled. We're hoping that changes soon," BART spokesman Rick Rice said. "We do feel this is unfair to our riders and hope to get it resolved quickly."

Both sides remained waiting for the

other to offer a new proposal.

"If they don't contact us, we can't sit down and negotiate, and that would mean we would continue to be on strike," said Antonette Bryant, president of the union that represents train operators, station agents and other workers. Asked how long the strike could go on, she said: "I have no idea; that's up to BART."

Carpool lanes will remain open throughout the day and motorists should be prepared for heavy traffic and hot weather. The California Highway Patrol advised filling up gas tanks and bringing along plenty of water in case of long waits in traffic.

Traffic officials reported Monday that commutes from the East Bay into San Francisco were about an hour worse than usual for solo drivers, with the commute worsened by a major accident on Interstate 80 in the East Bay. Vehicle counts on the Bay and Golden Gate bridges actually went down slightly during rush hour compared to the typical weekday, but that always happens when traffic is especially bad. Traffic officials liken it to pouring water through a funnel: When more cars clog the road, fewer overall vehicles can get through in a short time span than if the freeways are free-flowing.

Carpool lanes were moving much faster,

however. Goodwin urged commuters to show up to casual carpool lots, including at BART parking lots, after tons of drivers waited in lines up to 10 vehicles deep waiting for commuters that did not show up hop in their carpools.

Two reporters from this newspaper -- one driving solo and one taking transit -- raced between the Fremont BART station and downtown San Francisco. Even with a 20-minute stop in Oakland, the reporter driving made it there in 2 hours and 14 minutes, beating the transit-taking reporter by 34 minutes.

Bay Area transit agencies were offering extra services that would provide about 52,000 additional seats, with full service plan details -- and the latest traffic updates -- available through the 511 hotline and 511.org.

Meanwhile, AC Transit workers -- who provided the bulk of the back-up rides despite their contract also expiring Sunday night -- had not planned to walk off the job despite earlier threats to shut down the East Bay bus line. Amalgamated Transit Union Local 192, the union for AC Transit drivers and mechanics, has vowed to give 24-hour notice before striking but had yet to do so.

"They are still talking," AC Transit spokesman Clarence Johnson said late Monday afternoon.

AC Transit ran extra buses and carried thousands of extra passengers Tuesday to help people stranded by the BART strike, yet drivers made 99 percent of their scheduled runs, said David Armijo, the agency's general manger.

"Our operators did a magnificent job under some stressful conditions that will likely persist until BART returns to its normal service," Armijo said.

Commuters react

Around the Bay Area, people began coping with a life without BART.

"I was going crazy. I didn't know what to do," Alicia Wooley, 35, who takes BART daily to San Francisco but used AC transit as an alternative. "I hope they come to an agreement fast. I understand what they're going through but they have to realize what they're doing to everyone else. They're impacting the whole Bay Area."

Many commuters were angry. Karen O'Connor, 58, of Antioch, left home two hours early this morning to catch the ferry to San Francisco. O'Connor, a city worker, had little sympathy for the striking BART workers, saying "we all have to pay into our pension."

BART workers, who average about $83,000 annually in gross pay, contribute nothing toward their retirement and $92 monthly to health insurance. BART has offered an 8 percent pay hike over four years and wants workers to pay more toward their medical and pension benefits, while the local Service Employees International Union and Amalgamated Transit Union are looking for a 23 percent pay hike.

"As it is, they are overpaid," O'Connor said.

But Anne Coogan-Gehr, 56, of Pittsburg, who typically takes BART to her job in San Francisco, said she supports the striking workers despite the disruption to her commute. She was among dozens of people in Oakland catching an AC Transit bus to San Francisco.

"I'm very supportive of the BART workers in their negotiations for stabilized salaries and health and retirement benefits," Coogan-Gehr said.

Chris Morgan, 38, who works in San Francisco, chalked up the work stoppage as part of the bargaining process.

"I don't take it personally on either side," Morgan said, adding he took an extra hour to get to work after getting the news at 3:30 a.m. while following updates on Twitter. "I'm hoping it'll make my life pretty much unchanged."

At least one rider wasn't sure of which alternate route to take. Ama Gee woke up at 4 a.m. in Discovery Bay and drove to Oakland's Lake Merritt looking for a public transit connection to San Francisco's Financial District. Gee usually parks at a BART station and rides in, but this morning he was wandering Grand Avenue, lost and without a plan.

"I have no idea how to get to San Francisco," Gee said. "No one can tell me where to go, what bus to take." Finally, a fellow a commuter helped to direct him to the morning's first AC Transit transbay bus, which was full of extra riders looking for a BART alternative.

Twenty minutes after his shift was supposed to begin at a Levi's store in Union Square but two hours after he left his East Oakland home, Julian Damone, 23, was stuck at the West Oakland BART station waiting for a shuttle.

"It's really a killer," Damone said.

Also furious was Gabriel Mendieta, who was getting conflicting information about how he could get from the station to Fisherman's Wharf. Mendieta, who works at an Applebee's making San Francisco's minimum wage of $10.55 per hour, said he had little sympathy for striking BART workers.

"They get paid more than teachers do. They get paid more than I do, more than half the people that are commuting do," Mendieta said. "I barely make ends meet."

Just around the corner, a crew of Google workers was embarking on a breezier company shuttle ride from West Oakland to the tech company's Mountain View headquarters. One worker waiting for the unmarked "G-Bus" said he had no idea that BART workers were on strike.

Evening commute slow

During the evening commute, Pleasanton resident Julie Jackson said the strike made her trip a lot longer.

"Two-and-a-half (hours) as opposed to 45 minutes" to get home, Jackson said while sitting in a charter bus next to the temporary Transboy Terminal that was about to depart for BART's West Oakland station just after 3 p.m.

Zac Campbell agreed with Jackson that the union's deserved most of the blame as he stood in line for a Berkeley-bound AC Transit bus at the terminal.

"They've got a pretty good deal with those salaries from my point of view," said Campbell, who lives in West Oakland.

He said perhaps a cost-of-living increase would be acceptable but he has a hard time coming to terms with BART employees paying a flat rate for health care, no matter how many dependents are included. Not only is his commute about 30 minutes longer, but it also costs more to take the bus, he said.

At the Embarcadero BART station, turnstiles were blocked, with the slot to put the ticket in plastered over with an orange "out of service" sticker. A man headed to San Francisco International Airport go catch a flight to his home back east was informed by a BART employee that trains were not operating after he tried to get through the turnstile.

"I just paid $8.25 for this ticket and I just learned BART is on strike," said the man before leaving the station to hail a cab that he expects will cost him $60 to get to the airport.

Keith Kelly, 35, was one of several people who showed up at the BART station oblivious to the strike. Kelly said he had just returned from a trip to San Diego and had walked to the station to catch a train to SFO for the second leg of his vacation.

"I have a friend coming to pick me up," he said, as he stood against a light pole at the nearly deserted station around noon. "I am inconvenienced."

Stella Peterson of Pleasanton, who works at Safeway there, said some of her coworkers didn't show up for work -- one from Castro Valley and one from the Modesto area.

"Being a fellow worker, I don't blame them for fighting for what they deserve," Peterson said. "It's a shame that the rest of use have to suffer."

At a 7-Eleven gas station by Interstate 580 in Livermore, Michael Chavez said a lot of his friends are in their mid 20s and "are not fortunate enough to have a car."

Workers picket

Outside the Montgomery BART station, about 25 train operators and station agents chanted "Riding public should be aware, the BART board is unfair!" while waving placards with slogans like "stop the violence." They also planned rallies in Oakland and San Francisco for Monday.

"We are the working class, we support the working class. We bring them to work everyday," said train operator Tina Santillan, 35, of Daly City. "But the BART board doesn't care about the working-class folks because they've left them out on the freeway."

As she spoke, her colleagues blew into noise makers and chanted: "What's this about? Safety!"

BART train operator Robert Malito said he's on strike because he wants worker's comp rules improved and better train maintenance. He said train cabs aren't well insulated and drivers endure much louder noise when going through tunnels than ordinary motor vehicles would.

In addition, he said some driver's chairs have been repaired with duct tape, leaving springs sticking out. Also, he said, windows are so poorly maintained that he and other drivers have sustained injuries opening and closing them after they pull into stations to watch passengers getting on and off. He spent two-and-a-half years on workers' comp, but earned no retirement pay during that time, he said.

"Basically, the big issues are worker safety and vehicle maintenance," he said. "A lot of people are getting injured and there's no protection for us. We've had station agents assaulted by passengers. We call BART police and by the time they get there, the people have made their getaway."

Apart from the rumble of the occasional Muni train, the Embarcadero BART station was silent Monday morning. The turnstiles were wrapped in yellow caution tape and orange "out of service" stickers were plastered over the ticket slots. There were just a few people wandering through the usually bustling hub.

Two BART station agents, who didn't want to give their last names, said they are on strike seeking better wages and benefits including retirement, as well as improved safety for employees and passengers. They pointed to recent shootings and stabbings at BART stations.

"A lot of us have been assaulted. I've been spit on," said one of the agents, Elizabeth L.

Sandra D. added: "And I've been choked."

Elizabeth said most members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 don't believe BART's claims that the agency is short on money.

Even though BART is subsidized by taxpayers, it still loses money when it's not operating because of other built-in costs that still need to be met even when the system is idle. BART loses $8 million in passenger fare and parking revenue each week it is shut down, and even with saving money on labor and other operating costs, it still loses a net of $3.9 million a week, or $560,000 a day, BART says.

Back-up bus service

Outside the Walnut Creek BART station in the East Bay, buses were lined up early Monday to take commuters to the West Oakland BART station, where they will transfer to another shuttle that will take them near the Transbay Terminal in downtown San Francisco.

Passengers are being given round trip tickets and will be able to begin boarding buses for the return trip at 3 p.m. on Howard Street between Folsom and Beale streets. Bus riders must arrive to this loading area by 7 p.m. to get a ride back to West Oakland, where they will transfer to one of four buses headed to the Fremont, El Cerrito Del Norte, Walnut Creek and Dublin/Pleasanton stations.

Gary Luk of Pleasanton spent two hours on a chartered BART bus getting into San Francisco before getting an emergency call from his wife to come home for a sick child. With return bus trips to the East Bay only leaving this afternoon, he was left scratching his head, trying to figure out how to get back. The back-up service has proven "totally inadequate for dealing with emergencies," he said.

Caltrain

Caltrain spokeswoman Christine Dunn said the trains arriving in San Francisco between 5 and 8 a.m. were not overly crowded.

"We had more passengers than normal but not extraordinary crowds," said Dunn, noting the agency added a couple northbound trains to its regular commuter service.

Still, Caltrains were packed with riders at 8 a.m. At the Millbrae BART-Caltrain station, Josephine Chen, 25, said she was running late for her internship in downtown San Francisco. She normally takes BART to the Powell Street station but would have to catch a bus downtown from the Caltrain terminal.

Ferries

San Francisco Bay Ferry said it carried 7,835 riders this morning, up from 2,500 on a typical morning.

There was little patience for BART or its workers among some commuters catching the ferry to Oakland from San Francisco's waterfront.

"It sucks," said Richard Mumolo, 55, of Oakland, who was on his way home after working the night shift as a security guard. "I'm going to end up paying for their raise because apparently making more than twice what I do is not enough."

Ferries were packed full, with usual riders saying passengers were up by two thirds over a normal day. K.C. Frogge, 57, of Oakland, has been taking the ferry for more than a decade to her office manager job in San Francisco and said most days she sees about 120 people, but it was more than 300 on Monday.

"Most people were like zombies, like 'just give me a seat,'" she said. "It's crowded to the gills."

In Alameda, officials say they are offering additional parking spaces near the city's two ferry terminals to help commuters who wish to travel to San Francisco today. Deputy City Manager Alex Nguyen said a shuttle service and free valet bicycle parking is available at the Main Street terminal. Satellite parking and a shuttle service is also available at the city-owned Chuck Corica Golf Complex for commuters who are using the terminal on Bay Farm Island near the Oakland International Airport.

Alameda police say they will be relaxing parking enforcement near both ferry terminals. But police also say they will still ticket those responsible for flagrant violations, such as blocking driveways, sidewalks and fire hydrants.

Carpooling

Already a popular way of commuting for many San Francisco-bound workers in the East Bay, the number of commuters getting carpool rides from strangers surged on Monday.

Graphic designer Kim Ciabattari usually walks to the Rockridge BART station in Oakland. On Monday, she instead walked an extra block to a "casual carpool" spot beneath Highway 24 where drivers wait to pick up at least two riders -- enough to get in the carpool lane heading to the Bay Bridge.

"It's a slight inconvenience but I think it's worth it," Ciabattari said. "I support workers' rights."

Harrison Sen, 24, who works in San Carlos, was waiting for a coworker to pick him up to drive him to their construction job.

"This kind of sucks," he said. Usually "I leave at 4 p.m. and get home around 6 p.m., but it's probably going to be 7 or 8 p.m. tonight."

Rental cars and taxis

Bay Area ride services Uber, Lyft and Sidecar said they put as many drivers as they could on the road and jumped on social media networks to recruit commuters who needed to get to work.

By 9:30 a.m., Sidecar reported a 40 percent increase in rides over last Monday, and had increased the number of drivers on the road by 50 percent, said Margaret Ryan, vice president of communications.

"In times of crisis, this is when alternative transportation services like Sidecar are at their best," Rachael King, national social media manager for Sidecar, wrote in a blog post on the company website.

Avego, a Website and app that helps Bay Area commuters set up carpools, is offering an even faster way for commuters to get home Monday afternoon -- a helicopter. The company is partnering with a local radio station to give four East Bay residents a helicopter ride home from San Francisco at 6 p.m.

With many car rental sites in San Francisco already booked solid through the Fourth of July weekend, stranded commuters were unable to make last-minute reservations.

Zipcar, the car-sharing service and car club, didn't appear to be an alternative for Bay Area commuters, as several lots around San Francisco remained full. Most Zipcar customers use the service, which has a membership fee and per-use charge, to run errands or drive to meeting during the work day -- but not for getting to work.

Staff at the Avis and Budget rental site in the city's SoMa neighborhood, however, were worried that heavy traffic during the afternoon commute would delay car returns. That, one employee said, would mean cars may not be ready for customers with reservations tonight or tomorrow morning.

Bicycling

Monday was supposed to be the first day of a four-month pilot program that would allow bicycle commuters on BART during commute hours, adding another layer of frustration for bicycle advocates.

Robert Prinz, education director of the East Bay Bicycle Coalition, however, said he was happy to see lots of bicyclists being accommodated on San Francisco-bound ferries leaving from the Jack London Square terminal in Oakland.

"There are more bikes than usual and that's good to see," Prinz said. "When it's jam packed like today, we suggest people bring a bungee cord to secure their bikes on the boat."

Emma Deboncoeur, a UC Berkeley summer school student who usually takes BART from her West Oakland home, rode to school and was slightly sweaty in the warm weather as she parked her bike.

"Well I'm from Berkeley so I'm OK showing up to class smelly and sweaty," Deboncoeur said.

City strike

City of Oakland workers were also on strike Monday but were set to return to their jobs Tuesday.

At a community rally, city and BART workers stood together in solidarity. Presidents from the SEIU and ATU chapters spoke to those gathered at Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland and received cheers and applause.

"We stand in solidarity with every working family member that is on strike," Bryant said. "We are on strike today for respect, for safety, for fair labor practices and for our families."

Bryant asked those in the crowd to remove four quarters from their pocket, after which she told them this is what BART had offered workers as a pay raise. The announcement received a chorus of boos from the crowd gathered.

The BART strike comes a day after the rail line's busiest Sunday ever. The agency carried more than 276,000 one-way trips on Sunday, beating the previous record of 259,000 trips set during the 2012 gay pride parade.

Staff writers Denis Cuff, Mark Gomez, Peter Hegarty, Theresa Harrington, Aaron Kinney, Kathleen Kirkwood, Brittny Mejia, Joshua Melvin, Eve Mitchell, Karl Mondon, Doug Oakley, Matt O'Brien, Thomas, Peele, Josh Richman, Heather Somerville and Jeremy Thomas contributed to this report. Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at twitter.com/RosenbergMerc.

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