By Briana Vannozzi
New Jersey Transit’s Board of Directors offered few words on the pending federal investigation into last month’s deadly train crash in Hoboken. The agency met publicly today for the first time in four months as public scrutiny grows over the effects of NJ Transit’s diminished funding under the Christie administration and its possible role in hindering safety.
“Second question, why don’t you have a budget today? If you look back at the resolution that was passed 15 months ago, the first meeting of the new fiscal year, you have to pass an operating budget,” said Joe Clift, retired planning director for Long Island Rail Road.
The National Transportation Safety Board today releasing a preliminary report on the Hoboken crash, confirming speed was a factor and stating for the first time the train’s brakes were fully functional.
“That’s a good thing. That’s always positive, but I don’t know how that affects everything else that happened. I don’t have the whole story,” said Stephen Burkert, chairman of SMART Local 60.
But it could speak to the relevance of a positive train control system and whether it could have prevented the crash.
“We’d have to see if positive train control would actually be inside that part of that rail because you’re inside the terminal and PTC is more for the mainline trains, not inside the terminal itself,” Burkert said.
“NJ Transit is way behind the curve in this respect. It has virtually nothing going on as it relates to PTC based on the last filing with the Federal Railroad Administration. That’s unacceptable. That’s unacceptable to myself who’s brought almost $5.5 billion over the last 10 years to NJ Transit from the federal government,” said Sen. Bob Menendez.
The agency has been without a leader at the helm. Today announcing Stephen Santoro, who currently directs capital projects, will take on the role of executive director. And he’ll have plenty of work.
According to the state Department of Treasury, operating assistance has been cut by $252 million since 2012, forcing diversions from other funding sources, as well as fare hikes to make up the difference.
“It’s affected NJ Transit. We just went through five years without a contract for us because they had no money. The police department, I’m sure, has gone seven to eight years without a pay raise. You’ve had management here going nine years without a pay raise. So if you look at those positions other companies have absolutely come in here — Amtrak, Chicago, Florida. They have cherry picked every good manager you had here that they felt was good for their business, gave them pay raises. They left,” Burkert said.
“We’ve got to figure out how the state is going to start investing in rail infrastructure to alleviate not just the risk of tragedy but to really alleviate the pressure on commuters in this region,” said Sen. Cory Booker.
Some have suggested dedicating money from the pending gas tax hike that will replenish the state’s Transportation Trust Fund. And as Menendez put it today, the agency can’t continue to rely on pots of federal money to save it. A state solution is imperative. It is, after all, NJ Transit.