By MIHIR ZAVERI and MARTHA MENDOZA
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -- San Francisco Bay area commuters sweated in crowded buses, shivered on loaded ferries or inched through crowded freeway traffic on Monday after hundreds of train workers demanding higher wages went on strike and the region's heavily used rail system ground to a halt.
The walkout derailed hundreds of thousands of daily riders who use the nation's fifth-largest rail system each day, forcing them to find other means of transportation in the second-most congested region in the country.
However, morning rush hour did not come to a standstill as feared, and some travelers who used carpool lanes and other options added relatively little time to their commutes.
"It's been an absolute nightmare for some commuters, but we didn't see total gridlock," said Stuart Cohen, executive director of TransForm, an Oakland-based nonprofit organization focused on public transportation and walkable communities. "Everybody got so worried about potential congestion they found an alternative,"
Two of the largest unions representing Bay Area Rapid Transit workers went on strike early Monday after their contract expired Sunday night. It was their first strike since a six-day walkout in 1997. No new talks were scheduled.
Theresa Tramble, 23, and Antanisha Thompson, 24, who usually ride BART trains together from Oakland to San Francisco, were upset after their long, hard commute. They usually enjoy a $5.85 round-trip on a line deep beneath the bay on the quiet, cushioned seats of BART trains. Instead, they rode the bus, a noisy, jerking ride that cost $4.20 one way, almost doubling the price of their commute.
How was the ride?
"Super crowded, super hot," groaned Thompson, who works at a drug store in San Francisco.
At her side, Tramble said she had to get up two hours early and spent two hours at an Oakland bus stop. On her last day of college, she was worrying about final exams.
California Highway Patrol spokeswoman Sgt. Diana McDermott said it could have been worse.
"It's summertime and a holiday week, so plenty of people didn't go to work," she said. "Others had prepared for it, or they were able to work from home, and we saw lots of informal carpooling."
Transit authorities also made accommodations, including longer carpool lane hours, additional ferries, and extra buses and bike shuttles over the Bay Bridge.
Caltrans spokesman Bob Hahn said the biggest delay added 25 minutes to a stretch of Highway 80 between the Carquinez Bridge and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The heaviest traffic, he said, was to the south along a stretch of Highway 880, which was twice as heavy as a week ago.
Meanwhile the unions and management reported being far apart on key sticking points including salary, pensions, health care and safety. BART workers picketed outside stations on Monday.
"Our members aren't interested in disrupting the Bay Area, but management has put us in a position where we have no choice," said Antonette Bryant, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555.
The unions, which represent nearly 2,400 train operators, station agents, mechanics, maintenance workers and professional staff, want a 5 percent raise each year over the next three years.
BART said train operators and station agents in the unions average about $71,000 in base salary and $11,000 in overtime annually. The workers also pay a flat $92 monthly fee for health insurance.
BART spokesman Rick Rice said the agency had upped its original offer of a 4 percent pay increase over the next four years to 8 percent. The proposed salary increase is on top of a 1 percent raise employees were scheduled to receive Monday, Rice added.
The transit agency also said it offered to reduce the contribution employees would have to make to pensions, and lower the cost for health care premiums.
BART, with 44 stations in four counties and 104 miles of lines, handles more than 40 percent of commuters coming from the East Bay to San Francisco, said John Goodwin, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
Dozens of people who lined up single file at a bus stop in downtown Berkeley climbed into an F bus at 9:30 a.m. destined for San Francisco. In the 15 minutes it took to reach the border of Oakland, the bus had reached capacity, coasting by stops where would-be riders looked on.
The sometimes heavy heat prompted passengers to pop open small ventilation windows on the bus and led to sharp brakes that threw several passengers off balance to collide with neighbors.
Still, Yuan Wu, a 26-year-old baker who works in San Francisco, said the ride was "not any worse than I imagined."
Mihir Zaveri reported from Berkeley, Calif.