What’s Wrong with NJ Transit? Commuters Get to Weigh In

A survivor of last year’s fatal train accident in Hoboken was among those who testified at a public hearing about the mass transit agency

Credit: Chris O'Neill / National Transportation Safety Board
On September 29 last year, a train crashed at Hoboken Terminal, killing one person and injuring dozens of commuters.
Growing concerns about NJ Transit’s safety record and fiscal stability have led to a series of legislative hearings in recent months, but yesterday lawmakers heard from commuters themselves.

Several regular NJ Transit riders — including a survivor of last year’s fatal accident in Hoboken — aired complaints during a lengthy hearing in Hackensack about rising fares, and a train service that is increasingly subject to overcrowding and frequent delays.

The hearing came as Gov. Chris Christie is preparing to deliver a new state budget during a joint session of the Legislature next week, and as transportation advocates have been criticizing the state for not devoting more resources to support NJ Transit in recent years — resulting in a shifting of the burden more and more onto customers. Advocates who also testified during the hearing yesterday warned lawmakers that a lack of investment in the mass transit system could have a broader economic impact on a state that sees thousands of its residents commuting to high-paying jobs in New York City on a daily basis.

But it was the testimony of Sheldon Kest, a Tenafly resident who was riding in the first car of the Pascack Valley Line train that crashed at Hoboken Terminal during the morning commute on September 29, who drew the most attention from the joint panel of lawmakers from the state Assembly and Senate. Kest lost a portion of a finger as a result of the accident and also suffered a concussion. The accident left one person dead and another 100 injured.

Kest described the moments before the crash

During the hearing, Kest described the moments before the crash and immediately afterward as he tried to escape the train by climbing out of a window.

Sheldon Kest (middle) a victim of last year's train accident in Hoboken, testifies about his experience during a hearing on NJ Transit operations held in Hackensack last night.
“Two men, total strangers to this day, helped me as I climbed out,” Kest said. “I think of them daily and I wish I could personally thank them.”

“You are never the same after such an ordeal,” Kest added.

Asked by the lawmakers if he’d been contacted by NJ Transit in the wake of the accident, Kest said the agency has not reached out to him at all. Steve Santoro, NJ Transit’s executive director, attended the hearing, but did not offer any testimony.

“The fact of the matter is, NJ Transit failed you,” said Assemblyman Joseph Lagana (D-Bergen). “That’s just not acceptable.”

State funding has dropped in Christie era

While the exact cause of the Hoboken crash has still not been determined, lawmakers have been holding a series of hearings in the wake of the accident to evaluate how well the agency has been funded during the tenure of Christie, a second-term Republican who took office in early 2010. They’ve also reviewed other operational issues, such as the agency’s efforts to install technology to improve safety, including with Positive Train Control — a system that can prevent accidents by overriding engineers to slow or stop trains.

The direct allocation for NJ Transit out of the annual state budget has dropped from nearly $350 million before Christie took office to around $140 million in the current spending plan, according to budget records. But Christie has also used funds diverted from the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and the state Clean Energy Fund to help fill any gaps. Some money earmarked for capital improvements has also been diverted to sustain operations for the last several decades, totaling $7 billion by some estimates.

But fares have also been increased twice during Christie’s tenure, including a 9 percent increase that went into effect in late 2015, and a 25 percent hike that was approved by NJ Transit’s board in 2010.

The lack of state support was called a “travesty” by Rob Denicola, a commuter from Paramus. “I think voters are starting to notice that,” Denicola said. “Transit is not a luxury. It’s a necessity. It’s how we get to work.”

Severe overcrowding on Pascack Valley Line

He also said trains on the Pascack Valley Line are frequently lacking the adequate numbers of cars, leading to severe overcrowding. “People are packed into the corridors between cars,” Denicola said. “I think it’s a big concern.”

Len Resto, president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers, said another top issue for commuters is delays. “People and commuters don’t have the reliability of their commute every day,” he said.

Resto suggested the agency needs to do a better job of explaining why there are delays and how long they will last. He said NJ Transit also has “the highest fares in the nation.”

“The one recommendation I can make to you is fund the railroad as you fund roads,” he said.

‘Administration has not prioritized transportation’

Janna Chernetz, senior New Jersey policy analyst for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, told the lawmakers that, right now, fares account for more than 50 percent of NJ Transit’s current budget, far more than similar mass transit systems in other states. She said the agency needs a dedicated source of funding or a trust fund to sustain its operations. By contrast, the deal that lawmakers struck with Christie last year to renew the state Transportation Trust Fund created a dedicated source of revenue that will fund an eight-year, $16 billion capital-spending plan, one that will also draw federal matching funds.

“This administration has not prioritized transportation,” Chernetz said. She also urged lawmakers to keep advancing legislation that would give commuters two positions on NJ Transit’s board of directors so customers have a louder voice.

Suzanne Mack, chair of the North Jersey Transportation Advisory Committee, told the lawmakers that NJ Transit’s support has been eroding steadily for the last several decades, without much notice. She praised them for giving the agency more oversight.

“There has to be oversight,” Mack said. “Now we’re in the situation where we have people’s lives at stake.”

Mark Lohbauer of the Regional Planning Association tied the mass-transit issue to the broader state economy, saying projections point to the addition of nearly two million jobs in New Jersey over the next several decades.

“That’s all dependent on having an effective transit system,” he said.