Queens bus crash sparks calls for accountability, oversight from city politicians

NYC Council Transportation Committee Chair Ydanis Rodriguez announced on September 19, 2017, a new push to make charter bus drivers' records publicly available.
NYC Council Transportation Committee Chair Ydanis Rodriguez announced on September 19, 2017, a new push to make charter bus drivers’ records publicly available. Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

City elected officials are calling for greater accountability and oversight of local charter bus companies following the Flushing crash Monday that killed three people.

At a news conference Tuesday near the intersection of the fatal collision in which a Dahlia Group Inc. charter bus hit an MTA bus, Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, chairman of the city council’s Transportation Committee, said he would draft legislation requiring that city-based charter bus companies make driver records publicly available.

“We need to be sure that those charter companies, before they get a permit or renew their permit, they are to have a guarantee that all the drivers . . . have a clear record before they are driving in the city of New York,” Rodriguez said.

Queens Councilman Peter Koo and City Comptroller Scott Stringer joined Rodriguez at the corner of Northern Boulevard and Main Street to demand greater traffic enforcement in the area and a Vision Zero-based redesign for the streets, which they said have Manhattan-like levels of pedestrian and motor vehicle congestion.

“It’s no secret that we’ve had tour buses, other buses — huge commercial traffic here — with no real attempt to understand that a tragedy like this can easily happen,” said Stringer, who added that his office would investigate the crash. “We support the goals of Vision Zero. Sometimes you need more vision.”

Surveillance video from nearby Sophia Spa appears to show a Dahlia bus running a red light Monday morning as it heads east on Northern Boulevard, plowing into an MTA bus, carrying 15 people on the Q20 route, as it was turning the corner at Main Street. The Dahlia charter then mounted the sidewalk and careened into a Kennedy Fried Chicken store on the corner.

Raymond Mong, 49, driver of the empty charter bus who died in the crash, had previously worked for the MTA, but was fired in 2015 after an arrest in Connecticut for driving under the influence, sources said. The New York Department of Motor Vehicles also said Mong was operating the bus illegally at the time of the crash.

“DMV has no record of being notified by Dahlia Transportation of Mr. Mong’s status as a driver for Dahlia at the time of the crash, as required by New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law Article 19-A,” said DMV spokeswoman Tiffany Portzer. “This is an ongoing state and federal investigation and we cannot comment further.”

Dahlia itself has a record of dangerous driving, according to federal regulators. The company has worse on-road performance than 83 percent of motor carriers in the same safety event group, per Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration data. It’s received seven unsafe driving violations from the administration since Sept. 5, 2015, two for drivers traveling more than 15 miles above the posted speed limit.

“If by any chance [Monday’s crash] happened not because of any human error . . . this company, they should be accountable,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said he would hold an oversight hearing, probably in October or November, to evaluate charter bus companies and the city’s Department of Transportation on safety and industry regulation issues.

Queens Rep. Grace Meng said although some details on the crash were still unclear, she plans to work with her colleagues in Washington to draft new legislation aimed at preventing similar collisions in the future.

“I head back to Washington next week and we’re going to take a look at what standards there are — especially for bus companies who have multiple infractions like this company did,” Meng said.

Meng was reluctant to say that Mong, who had a previous DUI conviction, shouldn’t have been able to drive charter buses due to his history.

“Let’s say someone who had a DUI in the last year and was convicted, versus someone who might have been a 22-year-old and 40 years later never had another incident again,” Meng said. “We just want to make sure there are no unintended consequences.”

Councilman Koo’s office said charter bus traffic in Flushing has long been a safety issue and suggested that the department create designated charter bus routes for the area, similar to what it’s done for lower Manhattan.

The city DOT has identified Northern Boulevard as one of the hundreds of “priority corridors” in need of a safety redesign. Julia Kite, the policy and research director of Transportation Alternatives, said the city isn’t acting fast enough to improve such streets.

“We call upon the city to continue to speed up the action and provide a timetable for when streets like Northern Boulevard and when intersections like this one will receive a truly Vision Zero-worthy street redesign . . .” Kite said. “. . . So that we do not have to be out here again and do not need to be sending any condolences [for] New Yorkers whose lives are cut short.”

In a statement, a DOT spokeswoman said the agency is working on improving other stretches of Northern Boulevard and will look more closely at the intersection of the crash for street changes.

“The city’s thoughts are with the families of yesterday’s victims and while the cause of yesterday’s deadly crash is under investigation by local, state and federal authorities, one traffic fatality is too many,” the spokeswoman said. “Northern Boulevard remains a major focus of Vison Zero and is scheduled to receive safety improvements along new parts of the corridor to add to the substantial treatments made in recent years. We will review the intersection for any potential safety upgrades.”