A strike deadline looms in two weeks for New Jersey Transit union rail workers.
NJ Transit's interim executive director has called a federal labor board's recommendations "exorbitant" and "excessive" in response to a Feb. 17 letter from nine members of New Jersey's congressional delegation that urged an end to the impasse.
The unions have authorized a strike at 12:01 a.m. March 13 if no agreement is reached. The last NJ Transit strike was a 30-day job action in 1983 by conductors belonging to the United Transit Union, during which trains continued to run.
At issue are higher health insurance premiums and wage increases. The federal labor board created to mediate the dispute recommended that NJ Transit raise workers' pay by about 2.6 percent per year over the next 6½ years.
The Presidential Emergency Board said its recommendation would be consistent with wage increases at the other four large commuter rail carriers — Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, Metropolitan Transportation Authority, MetroNorth and PATH.
In his response to the congressional delegation last Friday, NJ Transit interim executive director Dennis Martin said the agency's "financial pressures are real, are immediate and are severe."
NJ Transit officials have said the pay raise plus rising health care costs would cost the agency an additional $138 million between now and 2018 and would force a fare hike. The agency raised fares by an average of 9 percent Oct. 1, the first hike in more than five years but the fifth since 2002.
An NJ Transit spokeswoman said the agency is developing alternate service plans in the event of a strike, but didn't give details.
"We remain focused on reaching an affordable settlement with the rail unions for our customers," spokeswoman Nancy Snyder said.
A union official involved in the negotiations said NJ Transit hasn't made enough concessions so far.
"We are getting down to crunch time now," said Stephen Burkert, general chairman of SMART-Transportation Division Local 60. "We have been the moving party in acquiescing on items we've proposed. At some point, we're negotiating against ourselves. We'd prefer to have NJ Transit push some proposals to the middle of the table that we can look at."
NJ Transit operates 12 rail lines and more than 200 bus routes, and provides more than 295,000 daily passenger trips on its trains.