TRENTON - NJ Transit officials skipped a legislative hearing Friday, prompting subpoena threats from lawmakers, as they instead pressed the state's transportation commissioner for information following last month's deadly train crash in Hoboken.
"We're not to be trifled with," Assemblyman John McKeon (D., Morris) said before he and lawmakers began questioning Transportation Commissioner Richard Hammer on the transit agency's safety record. It has come under additional scrutiny since one of the agency's trains crashed into the Hoboken station last month, killing a woman and injuring more than 100 other people.
Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R., Monmouth) said the absence of the agency's leadership at the joint meeting of the Senate Legislative Oversight and Assembly Judiciary Committees "undermines confidence."
"We should not have to vote for subpoena power," Kyrillos said.
Lawmakers hope for "voluntary compliance" when they meet again Nov. 4, said Sen. Robert Gordon (D., Bergen), "so that we don't need to use the subpoena power the Assembly has authorized."
The Assembly voted Thursday to give its judiciary committee the power to compel an appearance.
NJ Transit's new executive director, Steven Santoro, didn't attend because he had a meeting with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), Hammer said. NJ Transit's former executive director, Veronique Hakim, left last year; until Santoro's appointment this month, the agency was led by an interim director.
But the railroad administration said Friday that it "would have gladly rescheduled" the meeting to allow the agency's participation.
"FRA was unaware until media reports surfaced that NJ Transit was declining to participate in today's hearing," spokesman Marc Willis said.
Fielding lawmakers' questions Friday, Hammer - who also is chairman of NJ Transit's board of directors - said he couldn't comment on the Hoboken crash, citing a pending National Transportation Safety Board review. But he defended the agency's record on safety and performance issues, which have been the subject of recent press coverage.
The Associated Press reported this month that the agency's commuter railroad - the second largest nationally - has had more accidents and paid more in fines for safety violations than any other commuter railroad in the country over the last five years.
NJ Transit has had three times as many accidents since 2011 as the nation's largest commuter line, the Long Island Rail Road, the AP reported.
Asked during the hearing whether such reports were an accurate portrayal, "every time I look at articles it seems the numbers are different," Hammer said. But he didn't cite any inaccuracies, instead noting that the threshold for what constituted an "accident" was based on the amount of costs incurred.
Overall, Hammer said, NJ Transit's accidents per year have decreased by one-third between 2010 and 2015.
Lawmakers asked Hammer about substance abuse at the agency. According to the AP, of 183 federal safety violations settled by the agency since 2011, 33 were for drug and alcohol violations.
That "doesn't mean people have been found to be drunk or high on something," Hammer said, adding that officials "need to dive down and look at exactly what those situations are."
In August, Gov. Christie signed a law barring anyone whose driver's license is suspended for driving while intoxicated or refusing to take a breath test from operating an NJ Transit train.
Hammer also faced questions about a federal audit of the agency.
The FRA has been conducting inspections since June, he said. "Until the process completes itself, it's not something we're privy to," he said, though he said the state Attorney General's Office would be notified if the FRA finds violations, with "some sharing" of information with NJ Transit.
Hammer said NJ Transit, which increased fares by 9 percent last year, had adequate resources. He said it was "taking steps" to reduce breakdowns, although he contended the agency's figures might be inflated by including trains impacted by others that break down.
"Part of the problem could be we're simply counting too much," Hammer said.
Hammer assured lawmakers that had made "substantial progress" toward implementing Positive Train Control, an automatic braking system, by 2018.
Asked why the agency lagged other railroads - including SEPTA - in adopting the technology, Hammer said NJ Transit has "a more complicated system."