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Alarmingly enough, not much appears to be happening at the BART bargaining table — but away from it transportation officials are in high gear planning how to handle a possible second strike, and those plans could include running limited BART trains driven by managers.
Negotiators met three times last week, reportedly making little progress and then taking Thursday and Friday off. They’re expected to resume talks this week. If no agreement emerges before the end of a governor-ordered cooling-off period at 11:59 p.m. Oct. 10, a strike could erupt.
But while they’re quick to stress that there is no possible way to make up for the loss of BART, which hauls about 400,000 people a day around the Bay Area, transportation officials are contemplating new ideas for coping with the potential loss of the region’s transit backbone.
Perhaps foremost among them: BART is retraining some of its managers who formerly worked as train operators at a warehouse on Mare Island in Vallejo, and has said it is considering running very limited service if there’s a strike.
Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area’s transportation planning and financing agency, is looking into whether it could — or should — lease a fleet of charter buses to help haul commuters. The MTC is not normally a transit operator.
At the same time, Caltrans and the commission are considering how they might alter the Bay Area’s bridges and highways to encourage more carpooling, deter drivers from commuting alone and increasing speeds for carpoolers and buses on freeways certain to be crammed full of cars.
More traffic this time
Unlike the 4 1/2-day strike in July, which took place during a holiday week, few families are on vacation. Schools and colleges are back in session. Traffic is up. And BART ridership is about 30 percent higher.
“In a nutshell, there was considerable pain inflicted on the region in July,” said John Goodwin, a commission spokesman. “That pain is going to be much worse in October.”
The commission is set to discuss on Wednesday its contingency plans for a BART strike. The basic strategy will be the same as it was leading up to the July 1 strike: Encourage people to telecommute, take transbay buses or ferries (which will boost service), carpool or drive during noncommute hours if possible.
But everyone acknowledges that’s not enough, especially if the unions engage in a lengthy strike as they have threatened. So transportation officials are looking at ways to step it up.
As it did last time, BART is likely to charter buses and run service to West Oakland and downtown San Francisco from various East Bay stations. The idea of running an extremely limited rail service, using a dozen or so managers who are certified train operators, though, is entirely new.
BART officials say details of the rail plan haven’t been drawn up yet, and would need to be approved by the Board of Directors. But they would most likely involve running trains between either downtown Oakland or West Oakland and downtown San Francisco, probably only during commute hours. Commuters would have to rely on buses on either end.
It’s unclear how many trains could be operated, how often, and during what hours.
Paul Oversier, BART’s assistant general manager for operations, said during a recent MTC committee meeting that those managers could operate trains in the event of an emergency.
BART training cars
Last week, BART moved two of its rail cars to a Mare Island warehouse where the unpowered cars are being used to re-familiarize the certified managers and to instruct other managers who are in classroom training, said BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost. BART’s contracts prohibit anyone other than a certified train operator from running a powered train, essentially banning any on-track training.
State Public Utilities Commission rules require operators to complete a 15-week course, which includes classroom and behind-the-controls training before passing an operating test. Trost said she didn’t know how much more training would be needed for managers to complete their readiness.
Aside from the skeletal BART service plans, the MTC is looking into running charter bus service itself. Commissioners will discuss that on Wednesday but some have concerns about having to pay stiff cancellation fees if a strike doesn’t occur. They are also concerned about any liability they could incur, as well as just being seen as getting involved in a labor dispute or lessening the urgency of settling a strike.
It’s not clear where the MTC buses would run, but the focus would be on getting people across the Bay Bridge.
Empty seats in cars provide the biggest alternative to BART during a strike, but the trick is getting drivers used to driving alone to take a few friends or strangers along for the ride. The commission and Caltrans are considering ways to encourage carpooling by making it faster and easier. Among the things being contemplated are temporarily extending carpool lanes using shoulders, such as on Interstate 880 north, making carpool lanes longer, as was done in Interstate 80 during the July strike, even reconfiguring lanes at the toll plaza.
It’s all on the table
“Everything is on the table about what we could do,” said Randy Rentschler, an MTC spokesman. “But no decisions have been made.”
Almost no decisions, that is.
Rentschler said the idea of restricting the Bay Bridge to carpools only — as New York City did with its bridges and tunnels during the morning commute for two years after Sept. 11 and a shorter stretch after Hurricane Sandy — is not being considered. Nor is converting one of the five lanes on the Bay Bridge to a carpool- and bus-only lane.
Whatever steps are taken, no one should expect them to take more than a little bite out of a BART-strike commute backup.
“BART’s capacity is irreplaceable,” Goodwin said. “Anything we do is really just tinkering around the edges.”
Michael Cabanatuan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter:@ctuan ___