Could a rail strike paralyze the NYC commute?

New Jersey commuters are bracing for what could be the worst traffic jams in decades.

With contract talks deadlocked, New Jersey Transit workers have set a strike deadline of 12:01 a.m. on March 13 that threatens to shut down one of the New York City's three major commuter rail networks, among the busiest in the nation.

After months of stalled negotiations, New Jersey's congressional delegation stepped up efforts to head off a rail shutdown that would strand hundreds of thousands of riders and generate a surge in traffic on already-clogged bridges and in tunnels across and under the Hudson River. A federal mediation board has stepped in to try to break the deadlock, according to U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.

"With a service disruption looming, risking a complete catastrophe for New Jersey commuters and the regional economy, we simply cannot afford to stand idly by," he said Monday in a statement.

The major sticking points include higher health insurance premiums and wage increases. The federal board has recommended that NJ Transit boost workers' pay by about 2.6 percent per year over the next 6 ½ years.

The last time New Jersey commuters faced a complete shutdown of service followed the 2012 flooding brought by Superstorm Sandy, which crippled Hudson River rail service for weeks.

The last strike on the rail line was a 30-day job action by conductors in 1983. At the time, transit officials scrambled to add hundreds of buses to help some 70,000 commuters get to work. Today, NJ Transit operates 12 rail lines and more than 200 bus routes, and provides more than 295,000 daily passenger trips on its trains.

A spokeswoman for the state-owned rail system said NJ Transit officials are finalizing plans to provide alternate service and expected to release details later this week. "In the meantime, we remain focused on reaching an affordable settlement with the unions for our customers," she said.

Those plans are anticipated to include additional bus service and expanded use of Hudson River ferries. The agency is also expected to set up park-and-ride locations in New Jersey, where commuters would leave their cars to catch a ride on private buses hired by NJ Transit.

Town officials in local communities that would be hit hard by the strike are also bracing for the possibility of a chaotic commute.

In South Orange, where more than 4,000 passengers a day rely on rail service, township officials are making plans to roll out additional buses and help arrange carpooling.

Maplewood is working up plans to deploy a ride-sharing program and encouraging residents to work from home.