NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Negotiations between rail worker unions and New Jersey Transit concluded without a deal Thursday, as a strike deadline neared that would affect tens of thousands of commuters whose cost of traveling to New York City each day has already soared in recent years.
The parties met for several hours Thursday at a Hilton hotel in downtown Newark, two days after representatives for both sides expressed optimism at the tenor of the negotiations. Each spent Wednesday reviewing details of proposals made the day before.
By mid-afternoon Thursday, NJ Transit's special counsel said he was still optimistic that a deal could be struck before the 12:01 a.m. Sunday deadline but that key issues such as wages and health care remained in play.
The two sides planned to resume their face-to-face talks Friday morning.
More than 4,000 NJ Transit rail workers have authorized a strike for early Sunday. The two sides have yet to agree on wage increases, health care costs and the length of a contract.
Unions have been working without a contract for nearly five years.
The approximately 105,000 people who commute into New York via NJ Transit, the nation's third-largest commuter railroad, have endured fare increases in the last six years that have raised prices more than 30 percent.
In early 2010, for example, a commuter from Princeton to New York paid $366 for a monthly pass that now costs $499. The round-trip off-peak discount, $22.50 six years ago, was eliminated and a roundtrip ticket now costs $35.
For Tom Wright, president of the urban planning think tank Regional Plan Association and also a Princeton commuter, said the fare hikes become less palatable when they're combined with service disruptions.
"People understand that every year, costs inch up a little, and they probably have gone up faster than they should have lately," he said. "But as you feel that service is getting worse at the same time, you're paying more, that's when you say, 'I can't stand this anymore.'"
If there's any consolation for rail riders, it may be that motorists are even worse off.
Toll increases on the New Jersey Turnpike and at bridge and tunnel crossings into New York operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey have raised the cost of driving by more than 80 percent since mid-2011.
For cash payers, a roundtrip commute from Turnpike Exit 11, about 25 miles from New York, during peak periods went from $284 per month to $518 by last December, fueled largely by the Port Authority's raising of the tunnel toll from $8 to $15 over five years.
If there is a rail strike, those kinds of numbers could become relevant quickly for thousands of rail commuters: NJ Transit warned last week that only about 4 in 10 will be able to get into New York on the extra buses the agency said it would press into service as a contingency plan.
Gary Dellaverson, NJ Transit special counsel, said Thursday both sides hoped to settle the dispute before talks spilled into Saturday.
"Their desire and our desire, at least as of this moment, is the same, which is to reach a peaceful, across-the-table resolution," he said.
Union officials didn't comment on what transpired during Thursday's negotiating session, but expressed anger that NJ Transit had sent a notice to union-covered employees Wednesday telling them that in the event of a strike, all employees on sick leave would no longer receive compensation and striking employees would have their health benefits discontinued.
"We object to NJ Transit's conduct in this matter while the Parties are fully engaged in the negotiating process," they said in an email. "Such action on NJ Transit's part is counterproductive to reaching an amiable solution through the negotiating process."
An NJ Transit spokesman said the notice is required under federal law.