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OAKLAND -- Negotiations between BART and its unions continued Wednesday night, but transit officials warned that even if an agreement were reached within the next few hours, it would take most of the July Fourth holiday for workers to prepare the system before trains started running.

The holiday will provide a break for most of the 200,000 commuters left scrambling for alternative transportation this week. Still, plenty of workers and revelers will likely be forced to find other ways to get to jobs and celebrations.

A marathon negotiating session that began Tuesday evening continued Wednesday after a morning break, with representatives from BART and the two unions still on strike meeting at a state building in downtown Oakland.

But officials warned that it would take 18 hours after reaching an agreement before the first passengers can once again take BART to work, baseball games or fireworks shows. In addition to calling all the workers back, BART needs to reboot its electrical and computer systems, test service and clear the other logistical challenges of waking a sleeping train system that spans 104 miles.

"We've got to make sure all the equipment is manned, then we've got to make sure it's all safe for the passengers and employees," BART spokesman Rick Rice said.

After a 36-hour break since the shutdown began, BART management and unions Tuesday returned to the negotiating table for nine hours, stretching into the wee hours Wednesday morning. Following a quick recess to catch up on sleep, they returned Wednesday afternoon; after a brief dinner brief, they returned and were still bargaining as of 9:30 p.m.

It's unclear whether any progress has been made toward a deal, or if either side has submitted new proposals on the key sticking points: pay hikes and contributions to pensions and health care benefits. That's because the two top state mediators sent in by Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday ordered both sides to keep the talks confidential until a deal is reached.

"We're working really, really hard to get an agreement. That's our resolve," Antonette Bryant, president of the local Amalgamated Transit Union, said between talks Wednesday. The ATU and the Service Employees International Union locals represent 2,300 train operators, maintenance employees and other blue-collar workers.

"We're going to get out of it," she added, "and we're going to get out of it with a good contract."

BART planned to run a "very limited" version of its charter bus service from the East Bay to San Francisco on Thursday compared with the first three days of the strike. It will restore slightly more buses Friday. Most other Bay Area transit agencies are running reduced service for the Fourth of July and will be back to full strength Friday.

With the holiday kicking off a long weekend, rush hour was not expected to be significantly slowed again until Monday. But that was little solace for Bay Area residents who normally would have used BART on Wednesday, when once again they packed into buses, trains and ferries or drove to work, jamming freeways and bridges.

"Jobs are hard to come by right now. They should be thankful they have a job," said David Hogue, 50, of San Mateo. Hogue, who usually takes BART for part of his marathon commute to Stockton, hasn't been sleeping much because of the additional travel time.

On Wednesday, the BART board of directors indicated it might unilaterally impose new "terms and conditions of employment" on the unions. The board used a similar strategy during its last round of labor talks, voting unanimously to impose working conditions on its unions in 2009.

Workers responded initially by threatening to strike, but quickly reached a settlement without walking off the job.

Rice, the BART spokesman, downplayed the possible re-emergence of the strategy, saying that the board is still committed to reaching a deal through negotiations. But, he said, "We have to be prepared for all possibilities."

Because of the gag order, it's unclear what the latest proposals from each side are. But heading into Tuesday's talks, BART was offering an 8 percent pay increase, while unions were seeking a 20.1 percent hike.

The average blue-collar union BART worker now makes about $78,000 a year, including overtime.

An analysis by this newspaper showed the workers would earn an average gross pay of $82,000 to $84,000 under BART's proposal, depending on whether certain economic benchmarks are met, by 2016. Under the union's proposal, average pay would climb to about $93,000 in 2015.

In addition, BART was asking its unions, which do not currently contribute to their pensions, to pay steadily more until reaching a contribution of 5 percent after four years. The unions countered with a 0.5 percent annual contribution.

The final major issue is health care, for which all workers currently pay a flat $92 a month. Management wants the employees' share to increase to 16 percent and for employees with more dependents to pay more. The union has not revealed its proposal but is willing to pay more than it does now.

While some commuters are taking sides, others just want it to be over.

"They're holding the public hostage," said commute-worn barista Chanda Briggs, shortly after a cranky commuter snapped at her while she was making a latte at Frog Hollow Farms in San Francisco's Ferry Building. "We're the ones that suffer."

Staff writers Denis Cuff, Erin Ivie and Daniel J. Willis contributed to this report. Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at Twitter.com/rosenbergmerc.