NJ Transit: Short of Cash, Short of Staff, and Coming up Short on Safety

Chase Brush | November 7, 2016 | Transportation
Joint legislative panel blasts state’s largest mass-transportation agency, grills its new chief on transparency and operations

NJ Transit Train
Operating under severe budget constraints, short-staffed, and facing rising demands for new safety protocols and equipment upgrades, New Jersey Transit faced scrutiny from both state and federal investigators even before last month’s deadly commuter train crash in Hoboken.

But the accident has helped bring those problems into sharper focus.

NJ Transit, the state’s largest — and nation’s third-largest — mass-transportation provider has been involved in more train accidents than similar systems, such as the Long Island Railroad: has severe difficulties filling even top jobs and as a result has 245 open slots; and consistently operates without adequate funding, dipping into its capital budget to keep going.

That was the testimony on Friday by the agency’s new chief, Steven Santoro, before a joint committee investigating NJ Transit. At times, Santoro seemed to directly contradict earlier testimony by the state’s transportation commissioner Richard Hammer, who told the body two weeks ago that the agency was not experiencing any serious problems despite budget deficits.

“Our perception is that this a decent organization that has been starved for resources, and they’re unable to run the organization the way they’d like to,” said state Senator Bob Gordon (D-Bergen) after the meeting. Gordon is chairman of the Senate Oversight Committee and one of two co-chairs on the joint panel overseeing the NJ Transit investigation.

Trouble has long dogged NJ Transit, both in state, where its fiscal troubles have long been evident to commuters and lawmakers alike, and out of state, where federal overseers, including those at the National Transportation Safety Board, have been digging into safety and staffing issues.

The accident also shed some light on an agency that critics say has operated without enough transparency for too long. Media reports following the deadly incident have drawn more attention to what has been characterized as a decades-long decline at NJ Transit.

Perhaps the hardest line of attack, though, has come from lawmakers in Trenton. Shortly after the Hoboken crash, they announced they were convening a special legislative inquiry into the agency, taking aim at everything from its finances to its hiring practices. Calling the agency in “crisis,” they armed themselves with subpoena power and scheduled a series of hearings with top NJ Transit officials — in particular, its newly minted executive director.

Though it may have gotten off to a rough start — the first hearing, which was supposed to see testimony from the agency’s top officials, was only attended by state transportation commissioner Richard Hammer, drawing heavy criticism from legislators — the inquiry is finally bearing fruit. Santoro appeared in front of the joint panel on Friday, fielding at-times heated questions over a period of four hours on everything from the recent crash to the agency’s finances and hiring practices, which lawmakers likened to a “dumping ground” for political appointees.

“We learned a lot,” said Gordon. “We learned one, that they feel they’re not doing enough maintenance and they indicated that may be a factor in some of the incidents that are being reported. We heard that there is insufficient staffing, in the safety unit for example. But we still have more to learn.”

Safety failures

Even before the fatal crash at Hoboken Terminal, which killed one passenger and injured more than 100 others, NJ Transit had been under the microscope for an increase in safety violations and leadership vacancies. The Federal Railroad Administration had begun an audit of the agency in June, citing a growing number of safety penalties incurred by the agency in recent years.

That investigation led to the issuance of additional safety violations, but it wasn’t until last week’s hearing that the FRA’s complete findings were revealed. Santoro listed a number of areas in which investigation found the agency to be coming up short in recent years, including cellphone use among on-duty train workers; trains lacking proper emergency tools or working fire extinguishers; crews that failed to conduct brake tests or blow their horn at railroad crossings; and failure to properly secure locomotives in train yards. He said those findings were “unacceptable,” and vowed to change the employee culture at the agency.

He said the agency has been “proactive” in taking steps to address the issues, including conducting its own “two-week compliance” investigation educating employees about the use of electronic devices, creation of inspection teams to conduct random reviews, and adoption of new, stricter rules and penalties for being out of compliance.

“There needs to be a refocusing, a rededication relating to not just keeping the culture as it is, but also improving the culture,” Santoro said.

Lawmakers also grilled Santoro on the spike in train accidents that the FRA uncovered in its investigation, which found that NJ Transit trains had been involved in more than 150 accidents over the past five years. Santoro said the agency has worked to understand why its accident rates are higher than similar systems, and discovered that many reported problems are related to faulty tracks and switches in railyards.

The transit official’s answer — along with several other answers he gave over the course of his testimony — seemed to contradict the picture painted by Hammer at the panel’s last hearing, which was of an agency that is not experiencing any serious problems. Hammer said that the increase in safety violations were largely due to differences in reporting practices between NJ Transit and other mass-transportation providers.

“I’m not here to make excuses,” Santoro said. “Even if you peel away that fuzziness, we still probably would be higher in terms of train accidents.”

Santoro, who replaced interim executive director Dennis Martin at NJ Transit earlier this month, pointed to the agency’s many employee vacancies as one reason for the increase in safety problems. Aside from “critical” vacancies in other departments, he said understaffing in the agency-wide Office of System Safety has made it more difficult to enforce safety protocols. Created two years ago, the office is still operating without a deputy chief, he said.

Other open positions include NJ Transit’s chief of compliance, who ensures the agency follows all state and federal safety rules; new uniformed officers for its police force; and more than 20 people to implement Positive Train Control, the advanced braking system that transit advocates argue could have prevented last month’s crash in Hoboken. Santoro said the agency has committed to meeting the federally mandated deadline to implement that system by 2018.

All told, the agency needs to fill 245 vacancies, many of which require a high degree of technical and specialized skillsets, Santoro said.

Budget shortfalls

While NJ Transit has seen an increase in ridership over the past few years, it’s had little money to pay for train upgrades and rail repairs, transit officials said Friday. The agency ended fiscal year 2016 with a budget deficit of $22.5 million, and has been forced again to divert money from its capital project fund to its operating budget for day-to-day operations, they said.

The fiscal strain has led to many of the safety issues the agency has experienced in recent years, Santoro said, including its inability to hire competitively for open positions. Those comments were also in contradiction to what Hammer said of the agency’s funding at the panel’s hearing two weeks ago, which was that it had “sufficient money to fund its operations.”

Lawmakers on Friday questioned the credibility of the commissioner’s testimony in light of Santoro’s.

“To have come here and to tell us that this has nothing to do with substandard funding — that’s just so opposite of everything we’ve heard here, and so opposite to the facts,” said Assemblyman John McKeon, chairman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, the second legislative panel in the inquiry.

In the past, NJ Transit has responded to budget shortfalls with fare increases — including last year, when the agency hiked fares by 9 percent in light of a budget squeeze. But Santoro said that it will not raise fares in 2017, and will also work with the state’s Office of the Treasury to come up with more money to subsidize the agency’s budget and avoid a fare increase in 2018.

NJ Transit approved its $3.8 billion budget earlier this month for fiscal 2017, with $2.1 billion for day-to-day operations and $1.7 billion for capital spending. Officials also approved diverting $401 million from its capital plan to operations, a move that transit advocates criticize because it leaves less money to pay for rail improvements and equipment. But Santoro said Friday that the agency has also found it has been paying for capital projects — such as the purchase of new multilevel cars and locomotives — with operating dollars.

Santoro said those kinds of diversions will be stopped, allowing the agency to keep fares stable and remain competitive in the labor market.

Political patronage

Public organizations like NJ Transit have routinely been characterized as “dumping grounds” for patronage in recent years, a place where high-ranking political allies of the state’s top executives can find a home after leaving government. That’s been one of the many criticisms of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the bistate transportation agency that is facing its own scrutiny in the wake of the closing of commuter lanes at the George Washington Bridge in 2013.

Lawmakers said last week that NJ Transit is suffering from the same problem. In one of the hearing’s most heated exchanges, McKeon said he was “outraged” when the agency refused to comply with an earlier request to produce the names and salaries of top NJ Transit officials. He said the agency’s response did not include former Gov. Chris Christie press secretary Mike Drewniak, who took a position as chief of policy and strategic planning at NJ Transit last year.

“It’s already becoming clear that one of the top concerns regarding NJ Transit’s safety and operations is whether this all-important agency is being run by qualified professionals,” said in a later statement. “I am deeply concerned that many top NJ Transit officials have no business working at a mass transit agency.”

McKeon said Drewniak isn’t the only one to have landed at the agency after leaving Christie’s office. He said he found 10 other NJ Transit employees who are connected to the administration making between $74,000 and $170,000 annually. And he said he’d used the panel’s subpoena power to get the rest, demanding the agency produce all names and titles of employees making at least $70,000 and hired after Christie took office

“This committee is not going to be trifled with,” McKeon told Santoro. “What’s at stake is the life and blood of the economy of this state and the safety of tens of thousands of New Jerseyans.”