Lawmakers Circling N.J. Transit for Answers on Safety, Finances

  • Assembly may have subpoena power for investigation within week
  • Senate panel convening experts for insight on other agencies

New Jersey lawmakers as early as next week may wield subpoena power over New Jersey Transit, whose recent rail and bus crashes have claimed three lives and injured more than 100 people.

The agency, the nation’s third-largest provider of mass transportation, is operating without approval of the proposed $2.1 billion budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. On Thursday, when its board of directors met for the first time since July, its newly appointed executive director declined to say why a spending plan isn’t in place, or how the agency is addressing an estimated $46 million budget gap.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, 56, a Democrat from Secaucus, said he will post a resolution Oct. 20 authorizing subpoena power for that house’s judiciary committee “to investigate the safety and financial practices of New Jersey Transit.” The proposal needs affirmation only from the 80-member Assembly to take effect.

Downward Direction

Meanwhile, Senator Bob Gordon, 66, a Democrat from Fair Lawn who heads the legislative oversight committee, is summoning industry veterans and experts to Trenton on Oct. 21 to discuss financial and operating trends at other mass-transit agencies. New Jersey Transit representatives have been invited, he told reporters at a news conference at the Trenton rail station.

“Until relatively recently it was one of the best systems in the country,” Gordon said.

Nancy Snyder and Jennifer Nelson, spokeswomen for the agency, didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Assemblyman John McKeon, a Democrat from West Orange who would lead the judiciary panel inquiry, said a review of testimony and documents would lead to “meaningful reform” for an agency that has raised fares five times since 2002 while bus and rail passengers complain about crowds, poorly maintained stations and slipping service. Federal data show that its trains in recent years are averaging fewer miles between breakdowns, even as Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road, two other New York City-area commuter lines, become more reliable.

“The public deserves better than what it’s getting,” McKeon, 58, said in a news release.

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. 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. On Thursday, the board voted to replace an interim executive director, in place since December, with Steve Santoro, a 16-year agency veteran of capital planning.

Santoro, 63, spoke to reporters after his appointment at Newark headquarters, but declined to give specifics about how he will address the agency’s troubles, saying only that “challenges” were ahead.

New Jersey Transit already is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board after a Sept. 29 train crash in Hoboken that killed one woman and injured more than 100 passengers. The train was traveling 21 miles per hour, more than twice the speed limit, when it crashed through a bumper at the end of the tracks, according to a preliminary report.

Another incident, the collision of two New Jersey Transit buses at a Newark intersection on Aug. 19, killed one of the drivers and a passenger and injured more than a dozen others. That crash is under investigation by the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office.

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