OAKLAND -- BART trains will keep on rolling for at least another day.
The commuter rail line and its unions, who had already extended Thursday night's deadline for three days, agreed to push off a decision on a possible strike to Monday night. But the unions warned late Sunday that they will shut down the nation's fifth-busiest rail system starting Tuesday morning without an agreement before then.
The extension pushes the talks past the Columbus Day holiday, when traffic is typically lighter. It leaves hundreds of thousands of commuters on pins and needles yet again, sweating out their sixth strike deadline in the past 3½ months.
"We were so close to getting a deal," said Antonette Bryant, president of the local Amalgamated Transit Union.
BART General Manager Grace Crunican late Sunday said the agency presented its "last, best and final offer," a legal term that allows BART to declare an impasse or impose a contract if it chooses to.
Crunican said the agency upped its four-year offer for pay increases from 10.25 percent a week ago to 12 percent. She gave the union two weeks to vote on the final proposal, though union leaders did not sound optimistic it would be approved.
"We need to bring this to a close. It's been long enough," Crunican said.
Management and the two unions representing 2,300 blue-collar employees faced an 11:59 p.m. Sunday deadline to avert a strike that would shut down trains starting around 4 a.m. Monday. The 60-day cooling-off period ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown ended Thursday night, when unions gave their customary 72-hour notice that they would walk off the job if a deal is not reached this weekend.
BART submitted its new proposal late Sunday afternoon.
"We think we have put out a good proposal, but it will be up to the unions to decide if it meets their needs," Tom Hock, BART's chief negotiator, said during a break in the talks.
Earlier in the day, Bryant expressed hope by saying she was "cautiously optimistic" a strike could be averted. It was a departure from the unions' past comments that have centered around frustration with management since negotiations began more than six months ago.
"We're still talking," Bryant said. But later, she returned to blasting management.
Deals had been reached on several smaller non-economic issues, "which is always a good sign," said Hock, who added that "we are making progress." They remained fighting over the key economic topics, led by pay increases.
As they did last week, several Democratic state lawmakers from the East Bay arrived at the negotiating headquarters Sunday and were joined by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who said there was "reason for optimism" for a deal. Still, the politicians were not actually at the bargaining table and were only meeting individually with officials from either side.
"We want discussions to keep going. We want both sides to get to 'yes,'" said Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Oakland, one of a handful of lawmakers who attended the talks and urged the workers not to strike but were critical of management. "We've been heartened that in the past few days they've been talking and the gap has narrowed."
State lawmakers got involved as pressure mounted for them to pass laws banning strikes -- which would be a big blow to unions -- and enact binding arbitration, which would take some power out of management's hands. Outside politicians had stepped in to help avert past BART strikes over the last few decades but have stayed mostly on the sidelines this time around.
The unions went on strike for 4½ days in July and twice had threatened strikes in August averted by Brown, but now no one could step in to avoid a walkout. Heading into Thursday night's deadline, the unions had not issued a strike notice but had refused to rule out a shutdown, before announcing a three-day contract extension.
"It has been going on for two to three months; we never thought it would come down to the last day," said Pleasanton resident Johnny Taboada after he got off a BART train. "It's just a shame that they can't figure out something they can all agree on." Asked what it's like to have to brace for a strike again, Taboada just rolled his eyes and shook his head.
BART carries about 11 percent more riders during October than the summer, when the first shutdown happened. The commuter line, which carries 200,000 people roundtrip daily, is planning to triple the number of free charter buses it will run from the East Bay to San Francisco, to as much as 200, during a strike. Meanwhile, other Bay Area transit agencies would beef up service and authorities would enforce carpool hours all day on bridges and East Bay freeways.
The average line-level BART worker made $76,500 in gross pay last year, tops among California transit agencies. Workers do not contribute toward their pensions and pay $92 monthly for health care, regardless of how many dependents they have.
The most recent four-year contract proposals, unveiled more than a week ago, had management proposing a 10.25 percent raise and unions offering the equivalent of 18.4 percent. Unions say they have not had a significant raise in more than four years but management says it needs money to upgrade and expand the aging transit system. Polls have shown the public favoring management's offer by at least a 2-to-1 ratio while support for a strike has plummeted as the negotiations have dragged on.
Outside the Caltrans building in downtown Oakland where the talks have been taking place, a small group of BART employees was awaiting news from its union leaders as the day turned to night.
"We've done all we could to avert a strike," said train operator Sean Lacsado. "And it all comes down to this."
Crunican, after talks had broken for the night Sunday, said: "The Bay Area is tired of going to bed at night and not knowing if BART will be open or not."
Staff writers Theresa Harrington, Rick Hurd, Jeremy Thomas and Lisa Vorderbrueggen contributed to this report. Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at twitter.com/RosenbergMerc.
BART: Would run charter buses from the East Bay to San Francisco from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. BART lots and garages would be available free as carpool staging areas. The white-curb passenger loading zones could be used as casual carpool pickup and drop-off locations.
Ferries: Additional ferry service from Vallejo, Oakland, Alameda/Main Street and Alameda/Harbor Bay.
Trucks OK on I-580: Ban on big rigs from San Leandro to Oakland lifted from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays.
Carpool hours: Extended to 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. on I-80 between Carquinez Bridge and Bay Bridge; I-680 from north of I-580 to Benicia Bridge; I-880 from San Jose to Bay Bridge; toll plazas at Bay, Carquinez, Benicia, San Mateo and Dumbarton bridges; Highway 84 between Fremont and Dumbarton Bridge; Highway 92 between Hayward and San Mateo Bridge.
More info: Call 511 or visit alert.511.org