After Hoboken crash and brake upgrade delays, lawmakers begin drilling NJ Transit
TRENTON — New Jersey’s transportation commissioner sought to reassure state lawmakers about the direction of NJ Transit at an oversight hearing Friday, arguing that it’s safer than statistics suggest, it has the money it needs and it isn’t planning a fare hike.
Lawmakers had, and still have, a long list of pointed questions they’ll want answered in the coming weeks. Adding to their agitation Friday was that NJ Transit’s leader skipped the hearing in favor of a meeting with federal officials, though he didn’t tell lawmakers until the night before.
The joint hearing of the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee and Assembly Judiciary Committee was called in part because of the Sept. 29 train crash in Hoboken that killed one person, followed by media coverage that spotlighted concerns about safety, spending and leadership at NJ Transit.
The hearings will look at NJ Transit’s safety records and budgets, including transfers of funds from capital projects to operating accounts. Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex, said the agency raised fares in 2010 and 2015 but that service and safety has worsened.
I want to be crystal clear: New Jersey Transit will meet the 2018 deadline for implementing PTC.
“In the seven years that we’re talking about, not once has the Legislature rejected or cut a New Jersey Transit budget request. So if it’s a dearth of funds, then it’s on you,” McKeon said.
Transportation Commissioner Richard Hammer, the chairman of NJ Transit’s board of directors, said money isn’t an issue for the agency and cited statistics that show safety is improving – cherry picked to look misleading, McKeon claimed.
“Let me stress: New Jersey Transit has the resources it needs, the capital and operating resources, to fulfill its mission,” Hammer said.
“Could we use additional funds? Of course we could, and we would welcome additional dollars,” said Hammer. “But we have sufficient funds to guarantee a state of good repair.”
Hammer said no fare hikes are being planned but couldn’t commit, in response to a question from Assemblywoman Elizabeth Muoio, D-Mercer, that there would not be one through the end of fiscal year 2018.
“Sitting here today, there is no discussions or any thought of a fare increase, but you’re looking for something to be stated reflected ’17 and ’18, so I don’t know that I’m in a position today to answer definitively,” Hammer said.
We should not have to vote for subpoena power .. but it becomes hard to resist that when we don’t have the right people in place.
Hammer suggested that NJ Transit crash statistics may look worse than other agencies because it records more incidents than are required, even if they don’t clear a monetary threshold, and because the method it uses to electrify its trains are by nature more expensive to repair and qualify as incidents.
Hammer said a few changes have been put in place since the crash that apply to trains approaching the Hoboken and Atlantic City terminals: speed limits are now 5 mph, rather than 10 mph, and a conductor is now required in the trains’ front cab with the engineer.
Additionally, the agency has hired a rail-safety expert to advise the agency and is recruiting a new compliance officer.
Hammer said “positive train control,” a system that can slow or stop trains through sensors on the tracks and trains, will be in place by the revised federal deadline of the end of 2018. He said $100 million has been spent to date on the $275 million project and that the next milestones are next week’s vote to acquire needed radio spectrum and next year’s test on 6 miles of track on the Morris & Essex Line.
“I want to be crystal clear: New Jersey Transit will meet the 2018 deadline for implementing PTC,” Hammer said.
Lawmakers were upset that NJ Transit’s new executive director, Steven Santoro, didn’t attend the hearing and were particularly frustrated they found out Thursday at 9 p.m., in a text message that said he needed to attend a meeting with Federal Railroad Administration regional officials.
“The fact that Director 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,” McKeon said.
Sen. Joseph Kyrillos, R-Monmouth, said NJ Transit should have told the federal officials the meeting would have to be rescheduled because two legislative committees wanted to hear from the director. He said “it undermines confidence” and is consistent with how the administration has brushed off other events.
“We should not have to vote for subpoena power,” Kyrillos said. “We should not overstate things, abuse our authority. But it becomes in the fullness of time hard to resist that when we don’t have the right people in place” at hearings to answer questions.
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, said she would renew a push to get subpoena power for the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee. The Assembly voted 71-0 with three abstaining Thursday to give the Assembly Judiciary Committee subpoena power, though some Republicans made the case that it was premature to do so because NJ Transit wasn’t given a chance to cooperate.
“We argued against issuing subpoena power, and that makes us look foolish when we’re saying NJ Transit will do the right thing, will have people here, we don’t need to use this. And then people just don’t show up,” said Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, R-Bergen.
Hammer apologized repeatedly that Santoro was absent.
“You will have opportunities to see him, but today was a very important meeting that he attend,” Hammer said.
“I understand the importance of us fully cooperating with you, and we have every intention of fully cooperating with the Legislature,” Hammer said. “We are all in this together. We all want a safe transit system.”
Sen. Robert Gordon, D-Bergen, said the joint committee will hold a series of hearings in the coming weeks.
The next will be Friday, Nov. 4. Lawmakers made clear they’d like to see Santoro attend that meeting.
Gordon said the meeting after that will probably be held at night to hear from commuters, at a location within walking distance of a station on the Pascack Valley Line.