Top NJ Transit officials skip today’s public hearing on agency’s finances and safety
Top leaders of NJ Transit -- including newly appointed executive director Steven Santoro -- skipped a public hearing Friday at the Statehouse into the agency’s finances, leadership and safety, three weeks after a fatal train crash at Hoboken Terminal.
Legislators were informed by text at 9 p.m. Thursday that Santoro and other NJ Transit officials would not appear, said Assemblyman John McKeon, who is leading an investigation into the beleaguered agency.
“It’s not a good start,” McKeon, D - Madison, said of Santoro’s failure to appear. “We’re not to be trifled with.”
Santoro’s text said he could not attend because of a meeting with federal safety investigators.
In his stead, New Jersey Transportation Commissioner Richard Hammer appeared by himself in the Committee room, and bore the brunt of the legislators’ irritation. “You don’t communicate. You don’t show up at the last minute,” said Assemblywoman Annette Chaparro, D - Hoboken. “I really hope we don’t have to force you to communicate.”
NJ Transit’s attendance at the hearing was voluntary. But both McKeon and State Sen. Bob Gordon, D-Fair-Lawn, warned that if such vanishing acts continue in the future, the Legislature will use its subpoena power to force NJ Transit leaders to appear.
“My colleagues and I really are dismayed” by the last-minute cancellation, Gordon said. “We expect all the people that we invite to be here.”
The joint hearing of the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee and the Assembly Judiciary Committee is the first step of an investigation by state legislators into NJ Transit, which has come under fire in recent months. In addition to the fatal train crash on Sept. 29 in Hoboken, which killed one person and injured about 110 others, the agency has suffered a series of crashes this year, including a fatal bus crash in downtown Newark that killed one driver and one passenger.
Throughout those problems, NJ Transit’s board failed to meet in public for four months, even as it faced questions from legislators and the public about how it was funding its day-to-day operations. A political showdown between Democrats in the Legislature and Governor Christie reached its climax when Christie shut down most transportation construction projects across the state when the state Transportation Trust Fund ran out of money.
Leaders of NJ Transit have not answered questions about how the shutdown affected its budget, which will divert $401 million this year in money intended for construction projects to fund day-to-day operations instead.
An investigation this spring by the federal Railroad Administration found that in addition to NJ Transit’s safety problems, the agency also faced a leadership vacuum. Within a week of that finding being made public, Christie appointed Santoro to serve as the agency’s executive director, its first permanent leader since Ronnie Hakim quit in December to lead the Metropolitan Transportation Authority subway system.