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A BART sign is shown above the 19th Street station in Oakland, Calif. (Steve Dempsey/Staff archives)

There has to be a different way to do this.

After decades of contentious BART labor negotiations that have left the transit agency with ridiculous work rules and unsustainable benefit costs, and without funds to properly maintain the system, we know what doesn't work.

We've seen this performance enough times. The unions' and the district's negotiators present opening positions; they try to compromise but fail; workers threaten to strike; and then political pressures lead to contracts divorced from financial reality.

Once again, we're in the opening act. The two largest unions, representing nearly three-fourths of BART workers, are reportedly asking for raises of roughly 23 percent over three years. Ludicrous.

Although the current contracts expire at the end of the month, we haven't yet gotten to the strike-threat scene. That probably comes in September.

But three employee groups -- representing middle managers, police officers and police managers -- have agreed to try something different: interest-based bargaining. The goal is to jointly find solutions that address both sides' concerns and the greater good of the organization.

We are under no illusions that this will be a panacea. We understand that the three labor groups represent a small minority of workers, and that the employees they represent are often higher paid.

But we were struck when talking with Jean Gomez, president of the union representing the midlevel managers, by the difference in tone. We weren't hearing from her the traditional posturing and the bad-mouthing of BART negotiators. Indeed, she was pleased to try this experiment and appreciative that General Manager Grace Crunican had asked her union to give it a try.

To be sure, her union and BART haven't started talking money yet. But Gomez, who's a financial analyst at BART, understands that the agency faces difficult financial hurdles. She says she's looking for a fair deal that also makes good business sense.

That's so refreshing to hear.

It's clear to us that BART must replace its aging fleet of train cars and its outdated control system, and it must deal with billions of dollars of deferred maintenance and repairs. If the district can't deliver reliable, safe, clean, on-time service, current ridership growth will taper off, and the agency will stall out financially.

Financial forecasts show the district doesn't have enough money to provide that service in the future. It can't continue to offer employees free pensions and health insurance for them and their families for just $92 a month. And it certainly can't afford to offer raises on top of that. It's time to change course.

To find a way to do that requires changing the rules of engagement. Gomez seems determined to make this bargaining experiment work. "We are making inroads and I am really proud of that," she said. "It has to start somewhere."