BART unions should quit while they're ahead -- way ahead -- and accept the transit agency's latest offer.

The deal is more than generous. A walkout would further alienate Bay Area commuters and anger the unions' own political base.

Unfortunately, union leaders have raised their members' expectations so high that they have left themselves no graceful way out. Nevertheless, it's time for them to accept the political and financial reality.

Politics: As in past negotiations, the unions dragged in state lawmakers to exert political pressure on the BART board. This time it hasn't worked. Unlike previous years, legislators can no longer promise to help out with more state money.

BART patrons await a train at the MacArthur station in Oakland, Calif., on Monday, Oct. 14, 2013. Union leaders extended a strike deadline by 24 hours to
BART patrons await a train at the MacArthur station in Oakland, Calif., on Monday, Oct. 14, 2013. Union leaders extended a strike deadline by 24 hours to keep the trains rolling through Monday as contract talks continue. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)

Moreover, the unions have failed to rally public support. The latest survey by EMC Research, conducted for the Bay Area Council, shows 77 percent of residents oppose a strike and 63 percent say workers should accept management's offer.

The survey was taken in the four Bay Area counties BART serves: Contra Costa, Alameda, San Francisco and San Mateo. This is progressive territory. Indeed, looking at just the Democrats, the base of union political support, 72 percent oppose a strike and 62 percent say the workers should take the deal.

By the way, the poll was taken Sept. 29-Oct. 2. Management has sweetened the offer since then.

Finances: It's a great deal for the workers. Pay raises over the next four years would boost their salaries 12.5 percent. BART train operators' top hourly wage rate already ranks number four in the nation, behind Boston, Chicago and New York. This deal would put them ahead of the pack.

While workers for the other three systems make significant contributions to their pensions, BART employees do not. This deal would require them to pay 1 percent of their salary the first year toward their pensions, ratcheting up to 4 percent by the end of the four-year deal. That's still significantly below what most public employees in the state contribute.

Combining the pay increases and pension contributions, which come out of pre-tax income, nets employees the equivalent of roughly a 9.5 percent salary increase at the end of the four-year period.

As for health insurance, workers would be able to obtain coverage for their entire families, no matter how many dependents, for $132 a month. That's up from the current $92 a month. It's still a great deal.

Work rules: BART work rules are byzantine in both senses of the word. They're ancient and overly complicated. A major sticking point in the negotiations remains the BART board's long-overdue insistence on change.

For example, workers are protected by "beneficial past practices," meaning that if that's the way things have been done before, even if it wasn't in a contract, that's the way it will always be done, unless the unions agree to change. It ties the hands of managers and impedes attempts for greater efficiency.

Other examples: Employees who have collected sick leave during their regular work weeks can come back on weekends and earn overtime pay rates filling in for others. Track maintenance workers rebid their work assignments on a daily basis, meaning that senior members can choose one location one day and then leave it to someone else to finish their work the next. (The bidding process itself eats up paid work hours.) And rules for break time and reporting locations are so inflexible that train operators usually only drive trains about 4¿1/2 hours of each eight-hour shift.

Change is always hard. But at BART, where every minor modification must be collectively bargained, work rule alterations will be hard to swallow. The unions need to get over it. Most workers in today's economy, including those who ride BART daily, understand the need for efficiencies.

The longer this dispute drags on, the more that BART workers will be blamed -- rightfully so. Unfortunately, there will be collateral damage. Commuters' daily lives will be greatly affected. The Bay Area economy will be hurt.

And voters are likely to take it out at the polls by rejecting future BART taxes badly needed to shore up the aging system. That, in turn, will cost construction jobs -- trade union jobs -- and hurt the ability to move commuters around the Bay Area in the future.

It's time for the BART unions to end the posturing and settle -- before they do real damage.

Daniel Borenstein is a staff columnist and editorial writer. Reach him at 925-943-8248 or dborenstein@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BorensteinDan.