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El Cerrito City Council member Janet Abelson, right, is ready to ride an AC Transit bus after getting on board at a bus stop on Carlson Boulevard and San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013. (Ray Chavez/Staff)

BART strikes in July and October gummed up Bay Area freeways and sent exasperated commuters scrambling to ferry terminals and casual carpool locations in search of alternative transportation. Those same commuters soon could be in for a gridlock Groundhog Day, with uncertainty surrounding BART's labor situation and AC Transit's cooling-off clock ticking down.

No one is monitoring those developments with more interest than disabled passengers who say they are disproportionately affected by public transit shutdowns.

Lisamaria Martinez, a legally blind single mother who commutes from Union City to San Francisco via BART for her job at Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, saw her round-trip commute balloon from three hours and 15 minutes to six hours during the BART strike in October.

"It was awful," she said. "Disabled people, many of us are low-income. An AC Transit strike will impact the disabled community just like BART did."

AC Transit workers were two days from walking off the job when, on Oct. 22, Gov. Jerry Brown ordered a 60-day cooling-off period. Failing an agreement between the agency, which services 174,000 passengers per weekday, and Amalgamated Transit Local 192, a strike could happen as soon as Dec. 22.

Another BART strike conceivably could happen any time in the wake of a decision by the agency's board to dispute the family leave clause in a tentative agreement with its two unions.


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BART, which averages almost 400,000 passengers per weekday, ground to a halt for the second time in three months when union workers walked off the job Oct. 18. Just like in July, striking workers shut down the transit system for four days.

To get to her job, Martinez had to catch a ride from a friend to a bus stop, take the bus to a Muni stop in San Francisco, then take Muni to Civic Center, where she dropped her son at a day care he was attending at the time. After work, she and her son took a van into Berkeley, and from there they were driven to Union City by a friend. As exasperating as it was, she said it could have been worse.

"Imagine if you're a wheelchair user," she said.

El Cerrito City Councilwoman Janet Abelson does use a wheelchair. As a regular passenger on public transportation, who also is a member of advisory boards for BART and East Bay Paratransit, Abelson is well-versed in the services local transit agencies provide.

Often she catches the AC Transit stop at Carlson Boulevard and San Pablo Avenue near her El Cerrito home. There, she waits until able-bodied passengers are aboard, and the driver lowers the bus and deploys a foldout ramp that acts as a bridge for a wheelchair user.

There is an area near the front of the bus for wheelchairs. The driver secures them with a long seat belt. The process takes about three minutes.

Lisamaria Martinez, who is blind, finds a seat on a BART train during her morning commute Nov. 18, 2013, in Union City.
Lisamaria Martinez, who is blind, finds a seat on a BART train during her morning commute Nov. 18, 2013, in Union City. (Aric Crabb/Staff)

But, she said, there is a price to be paid for having to live by a transit agency's schedule.

"Even when I'm getting there first, it might take me two hours when the other person takes half an hour," she said. "Sometimes I don't do things because of it. It's tiring."

East Bay Paratransit, established by AC Transit and BART to meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, is a potential alternative for disabled commuters during a strike, Abelson said. With vans equipped with wheelchair lifts, and sedans, East Bay Paratransit runs during BART and AC Transit operating hours and within three-quarters of a mile of a bus route or BART station.

However, to what extent East Bay Paratransit would be affected by an AC Transit work stoppage is unclear. A notice on the agency's website posted before the BART strike informed riders that service would be affected in the event of a transit shutdown, with delays and possible cancellation of all non-life-sustaining operations.

Chaplain J.L. (Jay) McLeod, CEO of Native American Veterans, nearly found himself in need of life-sustaining transit during the BART strike. McLeod, an Army veteran who uses a wheelchair, was on a national tour inspecting VA facilities. After arriving at Oakland airport, he took BART to Pleasanton, and public transit from there to his hotel in Livermore. He was stranded when the strike hit.

"The BART situation slammed me," said McLeod, 49, who lives in Virginia. "Their selfishness had a direct impact on those who can't make it without the assistance we fought for."

McLeod got sick during his stay, then suffered an anxiety attack. Both times he was taken to ValleyCare Medical Center in Pleasanton. He said his efforts to get to the Menlo Park VA or to Oakland airport were thwarted because Yellow Cab didn't have a wheelchair-accessible vehicle.

Wheelchair user Peter Mendoza, who was born with cerebral palsy, said disabled riders have fewer options than able-bodied commuters during a transit strike.

"Many of us with mobility issues don't drive," said Mendoza, 47, who before his recent move from Berkeley to Marin County used both AC Transit and BART to get to his job at the Independent Living Resource Center in San Francisco. "Most of us are transit-dependent. ... Cabs are cost-prohibitive, particularly for people of low or moderate income."

Martinez noted that in the 2010 census, nearly one in five people claimed a disability. "I heard that 200,000 to 400,000 people were affected by the BART strike," she said. "So if 400,000 people are affected, do the math."

Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him at Twitter.com/garyscribe.