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Recipe for gridlock brews in San Francisco Bay Area as bus workers also threaten to strike

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OAKLAND, Calif. - A recipe for gridlock was brewing in the San Francisco Bay Area as two of the region's major transit agencies teetered on the brink of commute-crippling strikes.

As talks to avoid a walk-off by employees of the Bay Area Rapid Transit agency drag on, workers at a major regional bus line are now threatening to strike this week if their conditions for a new contract aren't met.

Hundreds of thousands of people in cities like Oakland and Berkeley depend on the transit systems for their daily commutes and would spill out into already congested roadways or be left stranded without a mass transit alternative if the strikes coincide.

BART is the nation's fifth-largest rail system. Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District buses, which serve the East Bay and also provide service in and out of San Francisco, carry about 100,000 people roundtrip. Riders waited until late Tuesday to be told by a federal mediator that BART trains will run Wednesday as negotiations continued.

The buses served as alternative transportation for many BART train riders during a nearly five-day strike in July.

Both BART and AC Transit's contracts expired in June. The bus workers issued a 72-hour strike notice Monday, saying they'll walk off the job Thursday.

On Tuesday, the AC Transit board requested that Gov. Jerry Brown intervene in the labour dispute and impose a 60-day cooling off period. The board said that a bus strike would significantly endanger the public's health, safety and welfare.

AC Transit workers have rejected two contract proposals that would have given workers a 9.5 per cent raise over three years as they would also have to contribute more toward their health plans.

Different branches of the same parent union, the Amalgamated Transit Union, are involved in both labour negotiations. While they're about two different contracts, workers for each are pushing for similar benefits. And each local chapter has been monitoring the other's labour situation intently.

Union officials deny any co-ordination. Still, the spectre of both transit agencies striking at the same time could give leverage if the governor doesn't delay the bus workers strike.

BART trains were running on a normal schedule Tuesday as unions and management returned to the bargaining table just hours after marathon negotiations ended around 5:30 a.m. The parties had agreed to extend labour talks past a midnight Monday deadline.

Federal mediator George Cohen said the parties have made some progress in the intense negotiations to avoid a second strike in more than three months.

The BART unions, ATU Local 1555 and Service Employees International Union Local 1021, had said they would go on strike if they didn't reach a contract deal by midnight Monday after extending stalled negotiations from over the weekend.

However, a sign that some progress was being made came late Monday when SEIU Local 1021 executive director Pete Castelli told reporters that the unions had sent BART a counterproposal that was being discussed by management.

"We did make movement," Castelli said. "We want people to know we are up there working."

Sticking points in the 6-month-old negotiations include salaries and workers' contributions to their health and pension plans. BART officials confirmed early Tuesday that some progress has been made but economic issues still need to be hammered out.

BART presented a "last, best and final offer" that includes an annual 3 per cent raise over four years and requires workers to contribute 4 per cent toward their pension and 9.5 per cent toward medical benefits.

BART General Manager Grace Crunican said the unions had two weeks to accept the deal before it would be taken off the table.

Castelli said Monday that the parties were somewhere between $6 million to $10 million apart over four years.

Workers from the two unions, which represent more than 2,300 mechanics, custodians, station agents, train operators and clerical staff, now average about $71,000 in base salary and $11,000 in overtime annually, the transit agency said. BART workers currently pay $92 a month for health care and contribute nothing toward their pensions.

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