New Jersey transportation officials painted a dire picture Thursday of what would happen if rail workers go on strike next weekend, as they predicted alternate forms of transportation would be able to accommodate fewer than four in 10 commuters who travel into New York each weekday.
"A rail stoppage will not just impact rail commuters," Department of Transportation Commissioner Richard Hammer said at the Secaucus Junction rail transfer station. "It will have a severe effect on travel in the entire region. This will be a very unsettling time for commuters, and we are asking for patience."
About a dozen unions representing thousands of New Jersey Transit rail employees have authorized a strike at 12:01 a.m. on March 13 if a settlement isn't reached. The primary issues are wage and health insurance increases and back pay. The unions have been working without a contract since 2011.
The two sides are scheduled to meet Friday before a national mediation board in Washington.
"There is not one person in this entire coalition that wants to go on strike," said Stephen Burkert, general chairman of SMART-Transportation Division Local 60. "We absolutely prefer to be settling this at the negotiating table and not on the picket line."
New Jersey Transit is the largest statewide public transportation provider in the country and provides roughly 1 million passenger trips daily on rail, bus and light rail.
NJ Transit interim executive director Dennis Martin said the agency will expand service on 30 bus routes, add service from five private bus carriers and offer free parking at five park-and-ride lots where buses will operate during peak hours.
Two of the lots — the Hamilton and Metropark stations on the Northeast Corridor rail line — will connect to PATH trains in Newark and Harrison, respectively. Two more — PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel and MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford — will take commuters directly into Manhattan. Buses from the Ramsey/Route 17 station will connect to ferry service in Weehawken.
About 105,000 people commute into New York via trains, either on NJ Transit or in combination with PATH, which is operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Martin said the contingency plans will accommodate a maximum of about 40,000 people.
"This will not be a normal commute for anyone," Martin said. He declined to say how much the contingency plan will cost NJ Transit.
NJ Transit estimated a normal 65-minute commute from Hamilton or Morristown into New York City could take well over two hours each way via bus and PATH train during a rail shutdown.
Sam Schwartz, a traffic engineer and former New York City traffic commissioner, said traffic backups could reach 20 to 25 miles on highways in New Jersey heading toward the Lincoln and Holland tunnels. He urged commuters to adjust the times they travel, and urged employers to allow telecommuting or flex commuting.
"Don't even think of driving during peak hours, and don't even think of driving solo," he warned. "In the next week, get to know the people on your train and try to work out carpooling arrangements."
PATH will cross-honor NJ Transit tickets, the authority said. A dedicated inbound bus lane at the PATH-operated Lincoln Tunnel will open an hour earlier than usual, at 5 a.m., and close an hour later, at 11 a.m.
Burkert criticized NJ Transit's plans for not taking into account non-peak travelers, such as concertgoers and second- and third-shift workers.
Martin said NJ Transit has made an offer to the unions that differs from its earlier offers but doesn't align with recent recommendations by an emergency federal panel convened by President Barack Obama. That panel recommended an average 2.6 percent annual wage increase over 6 1/2 years.
"As long as we're talking, I am optimistic," he said.
Burkert added union officials could opt to push the deadline back if there is progress.
"If we are at the table and we're close, we will absolutely keep running trains," he said.