In a little-known perk at a transit system struggling to control the cost of benefits, BART gives its employees and their families free travel passes on its system -- even after they retire.

Although other Bay Area transit agencies offer their own free-ride programs, BART's is among the most generous. It provides the same lifetime travel benefit to board members and their families, the only one of seven surveyed Bay Area transit operators to do so.

The cost? All together, BART forgoes more than $2.1 million a year for the free rides -- $741,000 of it for families.

At a time when labor-management strife may lead to a second strike this summer, some critics say the extensive free travel policy is part of a tradition of overly generous benefits at BART.

"It sends a wrong signal that in a time when fares continue to go up there are people who have never worked for BART who ride for free," said Fred Wright Lopez, a Lafayette attorney and unsuccessful BART candidate last fall. "It's an insult to BART's riders."

The free passes, however, are not on the bargaining table this year; bigger-ticket items such as pay and worker contribution toward pension and health benefits are at center stage.

Unionized workers have threatened to walk out again Monday if a contract deal isn't reached on or before Sunday. A strike last month lasted four days before both sides agreed to a 30-day cooling-off period.

BART director Zakhary Mallett, of El Sobrante, said trying to change the policy on free passes now could throw a wrench in already difficult pay and benefit negotiations. "I think it needs to be discussed, but now is not the right time," said Mallett, who favors re-examining the policy for spouses, dependents and board members who have left office.

BART director Gail Murray, of Walnut Creek, agreed. "Each negotiation, you take off a big gulp," she said. "You can't take on everything."

But BART Board President Tom Radulovich, of San Francisco, said he's not convinced the free pass policy should be changed. Getting employees to ride its trains gives BART more eyes and ears on board, and reduces congestion and pollution, he said.

A BART employee leader said her union has no formal position on the passes for full-time workers, but she likened them to employee discounts offered by stores or utility companies, such as bill discounts of up to 25 percent provided to PG&E utility employees. "Many companies do this," said Antonette Bryant, president of Local 1555 of the Amalgamated Transit Union.

Mallett said users of free passes add to the capacity problems on BART's overcrowded trains without producing revenue to upgrade the system.

Free rides by BART workers, retirees and family members account for about 2,104 trips per weekday, or about a half of a percent of the 400,000 weekday trips on the system, according to figures from BART.

While BART's free-ride policy is generous, most other local transit agencies have their own such policies.

AC Transit in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, San Mateo County's SamTrans and Santa Clara County VTA also provide free passes for transit employees, retirees and their spouses, partners and dependents. Golden Gate Transit offers the free travel to current and retired employees, but not to family members, while San Francisco MUNI and County Connection in Central Contra Costa offer free travel to current workers and their family members, but not to retired employees.

Several other transit operators offer free passes to board members, but aside from BART, that perk ends when they leave office. BART director Thomas Blalock, of Fremont, said he doesn't consider the lifetime passes for board members a bad idea.

"There is little enough benefit for being on the board," Blalock said. "And there are plenty of headaches."

Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Follow him at Twitter.com/deniscuff.

Take a free ride
Here are details on the free travel passes offered by Bay Area transit systems.
BART: Current and retired BART employees and board members get passes for free travel on BART, as do their spouses, domestic partners and dependents. Board members and retired BART employees -- who worked at least five years at BART -- are eligible for the passes for life. If a retiree dies, the pass for the surviving spouse terminates when he or she remarries.
AC Transit: The system provides free travel to current and retired employees, and their spouses, partners and dependents. AC Transit board members get the free passes while in office, but not after they leave.
Golden Gate Transit: Current employees and retirees (vested with retiree health benefits) get free travel on district buses and ferries. Their spouses, partners and dependents do not get the free travel. Current board members get travel passes for travel while conducting district business. Their spouses and dependents do not.
Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority: The system provides free VTA transit travel passes to current employees and retirees and their spouses, domestic partners and dependents, within certain age limits. Board members do not get the free travel passes.
SamTrans: Current and retired employees and their partners and dependents are eligible for the free passes. Board members get the passes while they are in office, but their family members do not.
San Francisco MUNI: Front-line workers such as bus drivers and trolley operators still get the free travel passes, as do their partners and dependents. Last year, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency phased out the free passes for other workers. Retirees do not get the free travel. MUNI board members get free travel while in office but not afterward.
County Connection: The Central Contra Costa system offers free bus travel to current employees and their spouses, domestic partners and dependents. County Connection does not offer free travel passes to retirees or board members.

BART's free-riders
Who holds the free BART passes? Here's a rundown:
6,416: BART dependents (family members)
3,250: BART employees
2,857: Police officers from departments within the four BART counties
2,120: BART retirees
702: BART contractors
13: Current, former directors
6: Summer youths
Total: 15,364