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BY ALINE REYNOLDS | As a result of efforts to clamp down on unlawful bus operators, cheap-fare buses traveling in and out of Chinatown will soon be subject to new rules authorized and enforced by the city. And, while many locals espouse stronger regulation of the buses, some fear that the low-cost bus operators are being unfairly targeted and that their closure will harm the neighborhood’s economic welfare.
State-wide legislation sponsored by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and State Senator Daniel Squadron that awaits Governor Andrew Cuomo’s signature will require curbside bus companies to obtain city permits in order to operate. Under the law, the city will also be charged with designating pick-up and drop-off locations for the buses.
The law comes on the heels of the federal government’s shutdown last month of 26 bus operators that were deemed “imminent hazards to public safety.” The action, an outgrowth of a year-long investigation, constitutes the largest single safety crackdown in the history of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Two of the shuttered bus carriers, Apex Bus and I-95 Coach, previously picked up and dropped off passengers in Chinatown (on Allen Street and Chrystie Street, respectively). According to the D.O.T.’s out-of-service order, the bus operators failed to ensure that their drivers complied with hours-of-service requirements. The companies also neglected to administer drug and alcohol testing, to properly inspect and maintain their buses and to mandate that all its drivers have valid commercial driver’s licenses.
The new law requires the city to consult with local community boards and allows for a 45-day comment period prior to issuing permits for pick-up and drop-off locations in Chinatown and elsewhere. Under the law, the city could also oblige bus companies to disclose information about their vehicles, the number of passengers they’re carrying and their parking locations.
Violators of the law will face fines of up to $2,500 in addition to a suspension or complete loss of their permits, which otherwise have three-year terms and cost up to $275 annually per vehicle.
The law was prompted by a series of fatal bus accidents in the metropolitan area that included a crash last March on Interstate 95 by a Chinatown-bound bus, operated by World Wide Travel of Greater New York, which killed 15 passengers. Less than three months later, a bus operated by Sky Express veered off Interstate 95 in Virginia and flipped on its roof. Four passengers died.
Both bus operators were shut down soon after the crashes, and investigators found that, in both instances, the drivers suffered from sleep loss tied to working inordinately long shifts.
Former representatives of Apex and I-95 Coach couldn’t be reached for comment, while a few other local companies declined to comment on the new law. ApexBus.com, a website that is still active, brands itself as the “leading ticket service provider for Chinatown bus companies,” though it claims not to be affiliated with Apex Bus, Inc., the operator that was shut down.
Sam Kwang, a customer service representative at Fung Wah bus company, which continues to transport passengers to and from Boston seven days a week, said he doesn’t mind the increased oversight. The company, which runs close to 30 buses, picks up and drops off customers in front of 139 Canal St. and 77 Bowery.
“I think the rules are fine — it’s good for the bus companies, as long as they follow the regulation[s],” said Kwang.
While Fung Wah hasn’t breached any federal laws, he said, the company racks up an average of 70 fines per month in city parking violations, with each fine ranging from $65 to $115.
“Sometimes when we’re dropping off or picking up a customer, we’ll get a ticket from the traffic cop,” explained Kwang.
To ensure passenger safety, Fung Wah staff holds monthly meetings with drivers and hires mechanics to inspect the buses prior to use. The company also makes sure its drivers have at least a two-hour break between driving shifts, said Kwang.
“We don’t let the same driver go back and forth,” he said. “When they come in from one place and don’t get enough break to rest, or they don’t have enough sleep…that’s [when] things happen.”
Justin Yu, chairman of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of New York — based at 33 Bowery — voiced support of the government’s added oversight of the buses, since the cat-and-mouse games the drivers play with the traffic cops have proven to be ineffective.
Yu himself had a bad experience on a bus from Washington, D.C., en route to New York, in which the driver took the wrong route in Pennsylvania and arrived in Chinatown two hours late.
“I think it’s good for all of us. At least in the future, the bus companies have some rules to follow,” he said. “Before, it was like the wild west.”
But other community members such as Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corp., a neighborhood community group, contended that the government crackdown could jeopardize a vital component of Chinatown’s economic lifeline.
“These people do not have the luxury or the option to go and take the Greyhound buses or the Amtrak [trains],” said Chen. “I’ve been told again and again, ‘They want to crush this industry once and for all.’”
Shutting down local bus companies will inevitably hurt Chinatown businesses, according to Kenneth Cheng, chairman of the Fukien Benevolent Association of America.
Cheng said he’s been approached by several neighborhood merchants who worry that fewer people will travel to Chinatown altogether, leading to the loss of store customers.
“East Broadway would be dead [without the buses],” he said. “They’re also hurting Mott Street and the Bowery.”
But according to Kelly Magee, a spokesperson for Council Member Margaret Chin, who backs the new rules, there were indisputable reasons for the shutdowns. She pointed out that half of the shuttered companies lacked a license to operate at all.
While bus companies that operate out of terminals, such as Peter Pan and Greyhound, are exempt from the legislation, the government already has stringent rules in place for those companies, Magee noted.
Curbside bus operators are seven times more likely to get into fatal crashes than terminal-based operations, according to a National Transportation Safety Board report from last fall.
“[Curbside buses] are being targeted because they’re not following the rules,” she said. “Now, they can pick up and drop off passengers wherever they’d like.”
Chin herself stressed the importance of additional enforcement in bringing home the message to bus operators that, if they’re not playing by the rules, they won’t be allowed to operate in New York.
“This is a safety issue,” said Chin, “and the operators that are breaking the law are creating a bad image for all the bus companies who are following the rules.”
In an attempt to ensure passenger safety, the federal D.O.T. has also introduced new rules, such as slamming bus operators with a $25,000 fine — compared to the previous fee of only $2,200 — if they lack the government’s authorization to operate. The federal agency is also requiring that all new carriers undergo comprehensive safety audits prior to putting buses on the road.
Last November, commercial bus drivers were barred from using cell phones while operating the large vehicles, following a 2010 federal ban on texting while driving.