Fatal Crash Prompts First N.J. Transit Meeting in Months

By Elise Young | October 13, 2016

New Jersey Transit’s board of directors will convene publicly Thursday for the first time in four months amid a federal safety investigation and calls by state lawmakers for subpoena power over the nation’s third-biggest mass-transportation provider.

The agency’s eight-person board typically meets monthly, except in August. It’s unclear why the panel, whose four public members were appointed by Republican Governor Chris Christie, hasn’t met since a telephone conference in July during which it approved contracts with two rail unions. The trustees have yet to consider a $2.1 billion operating budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.

Now New Jersey Transit, with more than 170,000 daily commuter bus and rail boardings in New York City alone, faces the wrath of transportation advocates demanding more transparency, and passengers complaining about worsening service since a fatal wreck in Hoboken on Sept. 29. On Facebook, members of the Delayed on New Jersey Support Group urged people to flood the meeting scheduled for 9 a.m. – during commuter rush hour – at the agency’s Newark headquarters.

“Why haven’t they passed a budget?” said Joe Clift, a retired Long Island Rail Road planning director who keeps watch on New York City-area transportation agencies. “This is four months now without a regular meeting. You could argue that they never need to have a board meeting.”

Nancy Snyder and Jennifer Nelson, spokeswomen for the agency, didn’t respond to telephoned and e-mailed requests for comment on why the board didn’t convene for routine business in July and September. In an e-mail, though, Snyder said committees met in August and September. One, she said, was “the focal point for accepting public/customer input and where on-time performance and similar information is provided to the public.”

The most recent spending plan “contains language which allows the agency to continue operations until the Fiscal Year 2017 budget is adopted,” Snyder said. Day-to-day operations are supported by customer revenue and other earnings, she said.

None of the agency’s trustees responded to requests for comment. Brian Murray, a spokesman for Christie, referred questions to New Jersey Transit.

The agency 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.

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

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.” Another Democrat, Senator Bob Gordon from Fair Lawn, was rearranging a hearing schedule this month to summon New Jersey Transit authorities to Trenton.

Though some runs were restored Monday for the 15,000 daily passengers who use the station to reach Manhattan, nine tracks remained out of service. The agency hasn’t disclosed the extent of the damage, 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.

On social media, users complained about rush-hour crowding and delays, routine in the New York City area, worsening without Hoboken in full operation.

“They have not been accountable to the public,” Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, an environmental group, said in a statement.”This is the first meeting after the Hoboken disaster and there are still many unanswered questions.”

E-mails seeking comment on the board’s activities weren’t returned by Dennis Martin, a veteran of New Jersey Transit bus operations who has been interim executive director since December, and Richard Hammer, the transportation department commissioner who acts as chairman. Ford Scudder, the state treasurer, and John Spinello, chief of the governor’s authorities unit, two more board members, also didn’t respond to e-mails.

Three Christie board appointees – Bruce Meisel, Ray Greaves and James Finkle Jr. – didn’t return phone messages. A fourth, Flora Castillo, a 17-year trustee who has served during Republican and Democratic administrations, didn’t respond to a request for comment sent via her Twitter account.

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