As the BART 60-day cooling-off period ticks down, calls for a ban on public transit strikes understandably grow louder.

After all, prospects for resolution of the labor dispute before Oct. 11 seem slim. The two sides remain far apart. The district board has already offered more than it should have -- and the workers want more.

But the well-intentioned idea, floated by state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, of banning BART employees from striking and imposing binding arbitration doesn't protect voters, taxpayers or riders.

Sure, the idea has appeal. A strike ban would provide a sense of security to commuters who worry about gridlock. But arbitration is fraught with peril.

In California, the process usually favors unions. Moreover, it takes key budgetary decisions away from publicly elected board members and turns them over to someone with no accountability to the voters.

To be sure, the current bargaining system is no panacea. BART unions make absurd demands and then sit back while the transit board continues to up its offers. The longer negotiations continue, the more district directors give away.

They face enormous political pressure. A strike could damage the Bay Area economy. Unions threaten to unseat directors in the next election. And state lawmakers, who also depend on labor for campaign contributions, stick their unwanted noses into the negotiations.

That landscape has previously produced extraordinary compensation packages for BART workers. Train operators place among the top-paid in the nation. Employees contribute nothing toward their generous pensions. And health insurance costs most of them just $92 a month, no matter how many dependents they have.

That has helped bury BART in a deep financial hole. The transit system needs billions of dollars for capital projects essential to keep trains operating in the future. Directors are banking on state and federal funds, more fare increases and future tax increases to stay afloat. They can't afford to continue overpaying workers.

Yet the BART board keeps upping its offer. It started with a 4 percent wage increase over 4 years, doubled it to 8 percent, increased it to 9 percent, and then, just before the cooling off period began, hiked it to 10 percent.

The notion that workers should make meaningful payments toward their pensions has eroded. BART directors first asked employees to contribute 2 percent of salary in the first year ratcheting up to 5 percent in the proposed contract's fourth year. That latest board offer seeks only 1 percent, increasing to 4 percent. The district would still bear most of the pension burden. As for health care, the board dropped its request for reasonable cost-sharing.

In short, the board keeps sweetening its offer and the unions have barely budged. Workers have underestimated the public's growing resentment, but they have leverage. Under the current contract, BART can't prepare replacement train operators. Meanwhile, employees at AC Transit, many represented by the same union as BART train operators, rejected their latest contract offer, leaving the possibility of simultaneous strikes at both transit agencies.

As bad as all that might seem, the notion of an arbitrator settling the BART dispute remains more worrisome. Lawyers who make their livings as arbitrators, mediators and fact-finders are usually selected by mutual consent of both sides from a pool of attorneys.

Unions across the state are generally better organized than local governments -- and they have longer memories. Hence, professional arbitrators who anger labor leaders risk being blackballed elsewhere. That's why they often split the difference between the two sides, no matter the merits of each position.

For BART, state imposition of binding arbitration on workers would raise a second problem. The U.S. Department of Labor would likely consider that an abridgment of collective bargaining rights that would make the rail system ineligible for federal transit funding.

Thus, while imposed binding arbitration might sound good, it would be very risky. For now, the best solution requires publicly elected directors with backbone who draw a line in the sand -- and commuters with fortitude willing to back them up by enduring a strike.

Daniel Borenstein is a staff columnist and editorial writer. Contact him at 925-943-8248 or dborenstein@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/borensteindan.