Following the fatal bus crash in Queens last month, the city must ramp up enforcement and increase fines against dangerous private bus companies, City Council members urged Thursday.
The lawmakers believe that, despite the city’s limited role in regulating the industry, both police and the Department of Transportation can do more to keep bus companies with bad safety wraps off the street. They called for a renewed sense of urgency after three people were killed on Sept. 18 when a speeding Dahlia Group Inc. bus ran a red light, colliding with a turning MTA bus at a Flushing intersection.
“We are dealing with an epidemic — an epidemic that we have the capacity to control,” said Manhattan Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the council’s Transportation Committee.
At the committee hearing Thursday, Rodriguez called for police to step up enforcement of certain curbside and moving violations as well as increased fines of up to $10,000 — what he described as the maximum.
The Dahlia crash is still under investigation. Both the company and the operator of its bus, who died in the crash, had a history of reckless driving infractions. Dahlia’s driver, Raymond Mong, was a former MTA bus operator who was fired after being convicted of a DUI in a hit-and-run collision in 2015. A report from state Sen. Jeffrey Klein’s office, published a week after the collision, found that about 20 percent of private bus companies operating in the state have poor safety ratings, as monitored by the federal government.
The problem for City Council members is that the industry is mostly regulated at the state and federal level. Plus, the city’s oversight can be confusing, buried under layers of bureaucracy.
City officials do have the power to issue and monitor pick-up and drop-off permits for companies identified as intercity buses, meaning buses that travel between the city and anywhere outside of it on a regularly scheduled service. Charter buses, defined as buses hired by a private person or group under contract to travel together to a set location, are not required to utilize such stops.
“Intercity buses and charter buses can be hard to tell apart from their appearance or destination alone, without more information about the specifics of their service,” said Alex Keating, the director of special projects for transportation management at the DOT.
Generally, the city can enforce traffic laws and monitor curb space for intercity buses. However, council members charged that ticketing has been lax and permits have been fabricated by law-breaking companies.
“[In] my district, I have so many intercity buses and charter buses, it’s been like the Wild, Wild West,” Chin said. “A couple years ago we fought for this permit system … and that worked well for a while, but now all of a sudden I see more and more buses and they’re just parking and doing whatever they want.”
Representatives from the Police Department acknowledged that the agency has limited resources, but touted their ticketing numbers: nearly 2,000 moving summonses along with another roughly 22,000 parking summonses have been issued to private buses so far this year.
When outstanding fines reach $2,500, the Sheriff’s Office has the power to seize vehicles. About 115,000 vehicles, including 352 New York State-registered buses, were seized by the office during the last fiscal year, according to Sheriff Joseph Fucito.
“We have a scofflaw patrol throughout the city to enforce the summonses that are issued by the Police Department,” Fucito said. “We have an aggressive process where we look for vehicles, including vehicles that have excessive (debt).”
Still, advocates and union reps say local enforcement is just a facet of larger issues that need to be addressed. Jeff Rosenberg, director of government affairs at the Amalgamated Transit Union, called trying to address the issue through enforcement to a game of “whack-a-mole.” The real issue is driver fatigue and wages, which must be regulated by higher levels of government, said Jeff Rosenberg, director of government affairs at the Amalgamated Transit Union.
“This is an exercise in futility,” Rosenberg said in his testimony. “Is there any reason why people who ride in buses, they aren’t treated with the same amount of respect as people who ride trains, or in planes? Until any of that changes, you’re going to see the same problems happen…We’ve seen a total looking the other way, from one administration to the next.”