Lawmakers Upset NJ Transit Leadership Absent from Hearing

By Briana Vannozzi

If New Jersey Transit officials were hoping to smooth things over with the state Legislature — the same one that recently approved subpoena power over the agency to its judiciary committee — not showing up to today’s hearing was probably a bad idea.

“The fact that Director [Steven] Santoro or those who would be in a position to answer questions isn’t here is disrespectful to a committee that will not be trifled with,” said Assemblyman John McKeon.

“It undermines confidence, it leaves the members and therefore the public to think we’re holding something back,” said Sen. Joe Kyrillos.

Instead it was Department of Transportation Commissioner and NJ Transit Chair Rich Hammer left to field questions at a joint legislative committee hearing in Trenton. NJ Transit leaders had an important meeting with the Federal Railroad Administration, he said. Lawmakers are investigating the agency, which has come under fire since the deadly Hoboken crash for a lack of leadership, transparency and fiscal woes.

“Published data indicate that NJ Transit trains are twice as likely to break down as those operated by regional peers such as the LIRR and Metro-North. Far too many cars sit in repair yards contributing to a standing room only, hellish commute,” said Sen. Bob Gordon.

But Commissioner Hammer disagreed with recent reports that show an increase in accidents and mechanical failures.

“Between 2010 and 2015, NJ Transit total accidents per year have decreased by one-third and NJ Transit train accidents per mile in that time frame have decreased by 35 percent,” he said.

He said the agency conducts more inspections than are required and that could skew the numbers.

“I think there’s more questions than answers. I think that again trying to put best foot forward, the commissioner was misleading as it relates to denigration of safety by statistics,” McKeon said.

Hammer also offering new news regarding the federally mandated positive train control system — technology experts say could prevent a crash like Hoboken.

“I want to be crystal clear. NJ Transit will meet the 2018 deadline for implementing PTC,” he said.

Hammer also refuted claims that the agency is having financial trouble, though it’s diverting more than $400 million earmarked for construction projects in this year’s budget to cover daily operations.

“The upcoming 2017 budget includes nearly $125 million more than the five years prior to this administration, 2005 to 2009. Let me stress, NJ Transit has the resources it needs, the capital and operating resources to fulfill its mission,” Hammer said.

And left without taking questions from the press.

Rail commuters who have endured a 31 percent fare hike over the last six years will likely take issue with that budget comment. The next joint hearing will be held on Nov. 4. Lawmakers expect NJ Transit officials to be there and say they plan to use newly granted subpoena power if questions remain unanswered.