N.J. Transit’s Deadly Crash Prompts Call for Legislative Inquiry

  • Third-biggest U.S. rail running without budget, board meetings
  • Lawmakers seek subpoena power like that after bridge scandal

New Jersey Transit, under review by federal safety investigators in the wake of a deadly train crash, faces the prospect of a legislative inquiry into finances and operations as its board has stopped meeting in public and its leaders have fallen silent.

Lawmakers say they’ve been stonewalled in efforts to examine declining service, including lateness, crowding and discontinued routes, even as New Jersey Transit raised fares five times since 2002. Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Sayreville Democrat, last week introduced a resolution seeking permission to issue subpoenas for the “testimony of persons and the production of books, papers, correspondence and other documents” from the agency.

“As chair of the transportation committee, I have on several occasions invited the leadership, and they’ve declined or feigned unavailability,” Wisniewski, 54, said by telephone. “We can compel testimony from the leadership of New Jersey Transit -- whoever that may be, because we’re not quite certain at this point.”

New Jersey Transit, the nation’s third-largest mass-transportation provider, hasn’t been accused of wrongdoing. Neither Dennis Martin, the acting interim director, nor Jennifer Nelson, a spokeswoman, responded to e-mailed questions about lawmakers’ calls for authorities to appear in Trenton.

New Leader

Martin, a veteran of the agency’s commuter bus operation, has run New Jersey Transit since December. A permanent replacement, former Amtrak executive William Crosbie, backed out this year after deciding not to move his family from Virginia. Martin’s predecessor, Veronique Hakim, left after less than two years to become president of New York City Transit. She replaced Jim Weinstein, who was criticized for leaving trains vulnerable during Hurricane Sandy and for public-transit woes during the 2014 Super Bowl.

New Jersey politics is bound up with its transportation, and Wisniewski is a veteran of those issues. He was armed with power to review the George Washington Bridge traffic-jam scandal as co-chairman of a committee that issued more than 20 subpoenas to aides and allies of Republican Governor Chris Christie. The panel’s findings formed the basis for legislation overhauling the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, the bridge’s operator and historically a provider of patronage jobs for allies of governors in both states.

New Jersey Transit already is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board as a result of the Sept. 29 accident in Hoboken, which killed a woman on the platform and injured more than 100 passengers. The train was traveling 21 miles per hour, twice the limit, when it hit the station, according to the NTSB, which hasn’t determined yet what caused the crash.

At a news conference after the crash, reporters’ questions were answered by Christie and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat. Martin didn’t make public comments. The agency has communicated mainly through routine service advisories about delayed trains and alternate logistical arrangements.

Commuter Snarls

Though partial service was restored Monday, New Jersey Transit hasn’t said when it will resume full operations for the 15,000 people a day who use the hub to reach Manhattan. It also hasn’t disclosed the full extent of the damage and the cost to fix the historic terminal, where a $175 million restoration was undone less than a year later by Sandy flood waters in 2012, leading to a 17-month service suspension.

Nine tracks remain out of service, and some trains were canceled or combined, the agency said in a statement.

Lawmakers say the crash has renewed their focus on New Jersey Transit’s leadership, finances, hiring and safety record. Since 2011, the agency has paid more than $500,000 to settle safety and procedure violations cited by the Federal Railroad Administration, records show.

“How is it that we didn’t know anything about that?” Senator Bob Gordon, 66, a Democrat from Fair Lawn, said in an interview. As vice-chairman of his house’s transportation panel, he’s rearranging a hearing schedule this month to summon New Jersey Transit authorities to Trenton. At the same time, he’s pressing his Senate colleagues to grant subpoena power to the legislative oversight committee, where he is chairman.

No Meetings

Without explanation, New Jersey Transit’s board of directors, appointed by the governor, hasn’t met since June. The fiscal year began July 1 with a $2.1 billion operating budget yet to be adopted and no word on a non-interim executive director.

“The leadership of New Jersey Transit should come before the legislature a couple of times a year,” Gordon said in an interview. “We’re not looking to look over their shoulder over every decision, but we should have regular reports to the legislature on the key decisions and plans, and a better understanding of how they’re going to respond to problems.”

A year ago, the agency raised fares an average 9 percent and cut some bus and rail runs to help bridge a $120 million budget gap, while data showed its trains are going fewer miles between breakdowns. In March, it averted a strike by 4,200 unionized rail workers with a contract agreement that will cost the railroad about $210 million in back pay and benefits through 2019.

That cost is atop long-term financial pressure and the burden of aging equipment. New Jersey Transit since 1990 has diverted at least $6.6 billion from its capital account to pay for salaries, health benefits and other costs. Federal data suggest a possible consequence of the budgeting. In 2013, New Jersey Transit reported 179 major mechanical rail failures that prevented the start or completion of a run, according to federal data. The national average was 44, according to figures compiled from 23 commuter railroads.

“We want to find out what’s at the root of the problem,” Gordon said.

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