Bay Area transit talks

Gov. Jerry Brown stepped in Wednesday to avert a threatened AC Transit strike ¿ one that could have overlapped with another threatened BART strike. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images / July 1, 2013)

SAN FRANCISCO — For the second time since August, Gov. Jerry Brown has used his authority to avert a transit strike — appointing a board to investigate the contract dispute between the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District and its union of bus operators and mechanics.

The action delays an AC Transit strike that was set for early Thursday, and could have overlapped a potential strike of the Bay Area Rapid Transit commuter rail system.

AC Transit carries 181,000 riders on weekdays through the East Bay and provides express bus service to San Francisco. That bus service became a crucial lifeline for commuters during BART’s 4 1/2-day strike in July. (BART logs more than 400,000 weekday rides.)

Brown said in a letter to the parties that he stepped into the AC Transit contract dispute because “a strike will, if permitted to occur, significantly disrupt public transportation services and endanger the public’s health, safety, or welfare.”

Depending on the board’s findings, Brown could next seek a judge’s approval for a 60-day cooling-off period, as he did in August for BART and its unions.

The news offered some relief to anxious Bay Area commuters who have been waiting with growing impatience to hear if a threatened BART strike will occur. Four strike deadlines have come and gone since last Thursday, as management hunkers down at the bargaining table with BART’s two largest unions and federal mediators.

Those parties promised Wednesday to tell the public by 10 p.m. whether trains will run Thursday. On Monday night, bleary residents who stayed up to plan their commutes did not learn the fate of the region’s 104-mile system until after 1 a.m. Tuesday, when they were told talks would continue.

Tuesday evening’s announcement came a bit earlier — by 10:30.

BART is negotiating with the Service Employees International Union, Local 1021 and the Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 1555 to arrive at a contract compromise affecting salaries, pension and health benefit contributions, and work rules.

AC Transit, meanwhile, has twice reached tentative contract agreements in the last few months with the Amalgamated Transit Union. Local 192, which represents 1,630 bus operators and mechanics. But the membership voted down the offers. Of key concern were steep health benefit contributions, the union leader has said.

AC Transit spokesman Clarence Johnson had said simultaneous bus and BART strikes would be “catastrophic” for Bay Area residents. The AC Transit board on Monday requested that the governor step in. The three members Brown appointed to the investigative board Wednesday have seven days to deliver a report to him on the contract dispute.

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Twitter @leeromney

lee.romney@latimes.com