By David Cruz
They restored full service to the Hoboken rail terminal this morning. It was a rare bit of good news from NJ Transit, which is at a low point in its 37 years. The once award-winning transit agency — the third largest in the country — has been listing, leaderless and insular, since its last full-time executive director left in 2015. Since then it’s been a series of mishaps, from the fatal bus crashes in the Lincoln Tunnel and downtown Newark to the train crash in Hoboken that injured scores of people and killed a woman on a nearby platform last month.
“I think this is the worst string of bad incidents that has ever happened to NJ Transit,” said Martin Robins.
Robins is a former deputy executive director at NJ Transit who remembers better days.
“Good people have been leaving the agency,” he explained. “There still remains lots of good people there but they have fewer and fewer resources and they’re constantly told that they can’t do this and they can’t do that because they don’t have any money.”
And that starvation diet is having an impact. In recent months, published reports say the agency has been under tough federal scrutiny for its finances and safety record. Add it all up and the result is a call by a joint legislative committee for hearings on what some are calling the NJ Transit crisis.
“I think it’s certainly time for more transparency, more accountability, more funding, if need be and at least there’s an executive director appointed,” said Sen. Loretta Weinberg.
That executive director — Steven Santoro — was named just last week, and didn’t have much to say about the agency at its board meeting, the first at NJ Transit in four months. They also didn’t return our call for comment today. The agency’s safety record — not counting the most recent Hoboken incident — has not been stellar. According to analysis from the Federal Railroad Administration, 45 percent of all rail accidents in the state over the previous three years have involved NJ Transit, and that includes PATH, Amtrak and six other rail operators in the state.
“What happens is year after year, in order to keep the lights on and the wheels turning, NJ Transit needs to transfer money out of their capital budget and into their operating budget,” explained Janna Chernetz, the New Jersey advocate for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, “and this started back in 1990 with about $90 million. And since then NJ Transit has relied on those transfers, but those transfers have been increasing. This past year it’s about $450 million.”
That’s $6.5 billion since 1990, says Chernetz. Funds that could have gone to repairs to trains, track and station improvements or safety measures, like the installation of positive train control.
“You know there’s been a lot of errors over there, predates this particular NJ Transit administration,” added Weinberg. “Issues around Sandy, storing trains where they could get flooded, the fact that there have been so many federal complaints lodged against NJ Transit over the last several months.”
“What we’ve got to do is make sure that this industry is maintained and expanded as appropriate,” said Robins. “I have concern that there has really been just little cheering going on out of Trenton towards NJ Transit, to keep it going, make it better and we’re suffering the consequences.”
Well, the agency’s got Trenton’s attention now, with a joint legislative committee scheduled to hear testimony beginning on Friday. Among the questions expected to be asked by the Legislature are what safety issues were discovered during the recent federal audit? Did the governor’s office know about them? And why didn’t the Legislature?