New N.J. Transit Chief Skips Start of Legislative Inquiry

(Bloomberg) -- New Jersey Transit’s new executive director declined to talk to lawmakers investigating the nation’s third-largest transportation agency, setting off fiery warnings that he’ll be subpoenaed to testify.

Steve Santoro, 63, appointed last week, informed a joint Assembly and Senate panel on short notice that he wouldn’t appear in Trenton because of a scheduling conflict. A spokeswoman later promised he would appear next month. Democratic and Republican lawmakers said his absence reflected a years-long pattern of unaccountability at the agency, which operates buses and trains that provide a crucial link to jobs in New York City.

“We’re not to be trifled with,” Assemblyman John McKeon, 58, chairman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, said at Friday’s hearing in Trenton. He said it was unacceptable that Santoro’s explanation -- he had a meeting with Federal Railroad Administration officials -- came at 9 p.m. Thursday. “Our subpoena power will be used judiciously.”

For almost two-and-a-half hours, lawmakers from the Assembly judiciary and Senate legislative oversight committees, meeting jointly, questioned Rick Hammer, the state transportation department commissioner, who appeared in his capacity as chairman of the New Jersey Transit board. Safety, Hammer said, is the agency’s top priority, and it will meet a December 2018 federal deadline to install positive train control, a technology designed to override human error.

Increasing Accidents

Hammer, 56, said federal reports that show increased accidents and breakdowns may be skewed by what he called the agency’s practice of disclosing all mishaps, even those that don’t meet the reporting threshold. “It’s held against us that we’re reporting more things,” Hammer said. Still, he said, the agency wants “to continue to bring those numbers down.”

At the end of his testimony, Hammer left via a side door to a waiting car, reporters in pursuit. He declined to answer questions, saying he had a meeting scheduled.

The Assembly on Thursday awarded to McKeon’s committee the authority to summon witnesses and request documents. Such power was wielded by another panel investigating traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge, which framed a politically motivated plot now at the center of a federal criminal trial in Newark of two former aides to Republican Governor Chris Christie.

‘Handle Your Mess’

New Jersey Transit already is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board after a Sept. 29 crash in Hoboken. One woman on the platform was killed and more than 100 passengers injured when a locomotive traveling at twice the speed limit rammed a bumper.

After the crash, lawmakers said they would investigate the agency’s safety and operations.

“Our town is left to handle your mess,” Assemblywoman Annette Chaparro, 49, from Hoboken, told Hammer. Passengers seeking answers after the crash, she said, contacted New Jersey Transit and got no response.

“They don’t answer anyone,” Chaparro said of the agency. “They do what they want.”

McKeon told reporters that he had the same experience.

“When the accident occurred in Hoboken, I immediately shot off a letter making inquiry into certain areas. No response whatsoever,” he said. “Today’s disrespect, quite frankly, of the new transportation head not being present and canceling at 9 p.m. the night before speaks volumes about attitude.”

Scheduling Conflict

A telephone message and an e-mail to Santoro seeking comment on his decision to meet with an FRA regional regulator, rather than appearing in Trenton, weren’t immediately answered. He will meet with the joint panel Nov. 4 and “will bring appropriate staff to answer committee members’ specific questions,” Nancy Snyder, a New Jersey Transit spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

“FRA would have gladly rescheduled our meeting this morning to allow New Jersey Transit to participate in today’s hearing,” Marc Willis, an administration spokesman, said in an e-mail. “FRA was unaware until media reports surfaced that New Jersey Transit was declining to participate in today’s hearing.”

Hammer said New Jersey Transit wanted to cooperate with the inquiry, but Santoro’s meeting with a federal regulator took precedence. “We need to work closely with them,” he said of FRA officials.

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, 81, a Democrat from Teaneck, said agency leaders have a history of claiming scheduling conflicts. She also questioned why the board went four months without meeting without explanation. Its proposed $2.1 billion budget has yet to be approved for the fiscal year that began July 1.

“We can’t get our arms around things that aren’t done in the public with transparency and with accountability,” Weinberg said.

Hammer said the agency has nothing to hide. “We’re very open,” he said.