New Jersey Transit Picks Insider to Lead Agency After Crash

  • Agency board members meet for the first time since July
  • Transit facing commuters’ wrath amid delays and congestion

New Jersey Transit’s new executive director referred to unspecified “challenges” for the nation’s third-biggest mass-transportation provider as he prepares to navigate a crash investigation, congestion, delays and a budget crisis.

Steve Santoro, 63, a veteran capital-projects overseer, was appointed Thursday to replace an interim chief at the board’s first meeting since July. Afterward, he spoke to reporters for less than five minutes, declining to answer questions about the agency’s finances. New Jersey Transit, without explanation, hasn’t scheduled a vote on the $2.1 billion proposed spending plan for the fiscal year that began in July.

“There are certainly challenges that we need to face going forward,” said Santoro, who joined the agency in 2000 and has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. Asked whether he would be more available to the public and media, Santoro said he would be at monthly board meetings, where riders and others may speak. Before he could answer a question on whether he would ask Republican Governor Chris Christie and Democratic lawmakers for a larger budget appropriation, he was whisked away by members of New Jersey Transit’s security and communications staffs.

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The agency’s eight-person board hadn’t met since a telephone conference in July during which it approved contracts with two rail unions. It typically meets monthly, except in August. The board didn’t convene for routine business in July and September, though committees met in August and September.

Board Chairman Richard Hammer, the state Transportation Department commissioner, directed Santoro during the meeting to report within 30 days on the agency’s progress on a positive-train control system, hurricane resiliency projects, replacement of the century-old swing bridge in the Meadowlands and the Hudson River rail tunnel.

The agency is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board as a result of a Sept. 29 accident in Hoboken that killed a woman on the platform and injured more than 100 passengers. Since then, passengers have taken to social media with complaints about delays and crowds while the agency works to restore full service.

State lawmakers say the crash has renewed their focus on New Jersey Transit’s leadership, finances, hiring and safety record after years of declined invitations to speak to the legislature.

Since 2011, New Jersey Transit has paid more than $500,000 to settle safety and procedure violations cited by the Federal Railroad Administration, records show. Alerts warning of delays and congestion are put out almost daily by the agency, which has raised fares five times since 2002 to help close budget gaps.

The agency hasn’t disclosed the extent of the damage from the Hoboken crash, the cost to repair, or when full operations may resume. Hoboken’s historic terminal, part of a $175 million restoration, was damaged less than a year later by Hurricane Sandy flood waters in 2012, leading to a 17-month service suspension.

Dennis Martin, a veteran of the agency’s commuter bus operation, ran New Jersey Transit on an interim basis 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.

Santoro, who is to start Oct. 14, was a good choice because of his depth of experience on capital projects and his familiarity with the agency, according to Senator Paul Sarlo, a Democrat from Wood-Ridge who is chairman of his house’s budget committee.

“He can hit the ground running,” Sarlo told reporters in Trenton. “It’s up to him to get in there and get things cleaned up.”

Christie, 54, ordered a halt to $3.5 billion in road and rail projects in July, as the state’s most recent multi-year transportation spending authorization was running dry. Last week, the state legislature approved a 23-cent increase in the state’s 14.5-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax to help finance an eight-year, $16 billion Transportation Trust Fund. Christie, who insisted on other relief in exchange, including a lower retail sales tax on consumer goods and the elimination of the estate tax, has said he will sign the legislation.

In Trenton on Thursday, Democrats said they didn’t know why the measure isn’t yet law. Brian Murray, a spokesman for Christie, didn’t respond to an e-mail asking about the governor’s plan for action on the bill.

Senate President Steve Sweeney, a Democrat from West Deptford, said the transportation fund will be especially important to New Jersey Transit, whose state appropriation has dropped since Christie took office in 2010. To pay day-to-day expenses, the agency has transferred more than $6.6 billion from its capital budget since 1990, while commuters have complained about crowding, outdated equipment and poor service.

“You can’t just keep doing fare hikes, ” Sweeney, 57, said. “I don’t think this administration has done anything to help.”

A bill approved by the Senate transportation committee Thursday would add two public members to the agency’s board. Of the four who now are appointed by the governor, one, a union representative, is non-voting. The new members would have to be regular bus and rail riders.

Senate and Assembly Democrats are calling for subpoena power over the agency, similar to that granted to a committee investigating the George Washington Bridge traffic-jams scandal. Two former aides to Christie are on trial in federal court in Newark, charged with conspiracy to cover up a plot to tie up streets in a town whose Democratic mayor didn’t endorse Christie for a second term.

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