SAN FRANCISCO -- Bay Area commuters once again avoided a public transit shutdown Monday after a judge took the extraordinary step over the weekend of ordering a 60-day cooling-off period between the Bay Area Rapid Transit district and its three largest unions.

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Curtis E.A. Karnow said Sunday morning that he had no choice but to grant the strike reprieve, which Gov. Jerry Brown requested Friday afternoon.

"If the court finds that the threatened strike will significantly disrupt transportation services and endanger the public's health, safety or welfare," Karnow said from the bench in Department 304, "I have to issue the order."

But Karnow also said Sunday that the hearing -- described by court officials as the first public proceeding in a San Francisco court on a weekend in recent memory -- "has nothing at all to do with the merits of the dispute."

The Bay Area Rapid Transit district and the unions have been negotiating a new contract for the last several months with no success. A 4 1/2-day strike in July left BART's 400,000 weekday riders in desperate straits.

A week ago, as another strike loomed, BART officials asked the governor to step in, and Brown convened a three-member board to investigate the apparent impasse. The investigation was to last seven days, during which BART's union members could not walk off the job.

During a daylong hearing in Oakland on Wednesday, BART management and the unions -- SEIU Local 1021, Amalgamated Transit Union 1555 and AFSCME Local 3993 -- could not even agree on how far apart they were in negotiating wages, healthcare and pension costs.

The unions told Brown's panel that the two sides' proposals were $56 million apart. BART officials said the gap was $62 million.

The panel made no recommendation to the governor, but it did decide that "a strike will cause significant harm." 

On Friday, Patricia Schuchardt, president of AFSCME Local 3993, had issued a statement against the potential 60-day cooling-off period.

“Dragging this out for another 60 days is not in the best interest of workers or riders,” she said.

But Zakhary Mallett, an elected member of BART's board of directors, hailed the outcome and said the cooling-off period would not be allowed to hinder the momentum of negotiations.

"I will continue to pressure my staff and our unions to continue to negotiate," Mallett said, adding that a strike like the one in early July "would have had grave effects on the riding and driving public."

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maria.laganga@latimes.com