New rules will rein in Chinatown’s bus operators
BY ALINE REYNOLDS | Clamping down on illegal bus operators, the city will soon be enforcing new rules against cheap-fare buses traveling to and from Chinatown. Yet, while many locals back greater regulation of the buses, some fear that the low-cost operators are being unfairly targeted and that their closure will harm the neighborhood’s economic welfare.
Statewide legislation co-sponsored by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and state Senator Daniel Squadron, awaiting Governor Cuomo’s signature, will require curbside bus companies to apply for city permits to operate, and only to pick up and drop off passengers at locations authorized by the city.
The law’s passage comes on the heels of the federal government’s shutdown of 26 bus operators last month that were deemed “imminent hazards to public safety.” The action, an outgrowth of a yearlong 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 and Chrystie Sts., respectively). According to D.O.T.’s shutdown 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 their drivers had valid commercial driver’s licenses.
The state law requires the city to consult with local community boards and allows for a 45-day comment period prior to issuing permits for pickup and drop-off locations in Chinatown and elsewhere. Under the law, the city could also compel 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 codified enforcement 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 I-95 in Virginia and flipped onto its roof, killing four passengers.
Both bus operators were shut down soon after the accidents, and investigators have 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 news. ApexBus.com, a Web site 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 nearly 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,” 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, ranging from $65 to $115 per ticket.
“Sometimes when we’re dropping off or picking up a customer, we’ll get a ticket from the traffic cop,” Kwang explained.
To ensure passenger safety, Fung Wah staff hold monthly meetings with drivers and hire 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, Kwang said.
“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, chairperson of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of New York, at 33 Bowery, voiced support for the government’s added oversight of the buses, since the cat-and-mouse games the drivers play with the traffic officers have proven to be ineffective.
Yu himself had a bad experience on a bus from Washington, D.C., 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,” he said. “At least in the future, the bus companies have some rules to follow. Before, it was like the Wild West.”
But Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation, said the government crackdown could jeopardize a vital link in 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, chairperson 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,” if the buses are driven out of business, he said. “They’re also hurting Mott St. and the Bowery.”
But according to Kelly Magee, a spokesperson for Councilmember Margaret Chin, who backs the new rules, there were inarguable reasons for the enforcement — including the fact that the companies that were shut down were unlicensed.
While bus companies that operate out of terminals, such as Peter Pan and Greyhound, are exempt from the new legislation, the government already has stringent rules in place for those companies, Magee noted.
Statistically speaking, curbside bus operators are seven times more likely to have fatal crashes than terminal-based operations, according to a National Transportation Safety Board report from last fall.
“They are being targeted because they’re not following the rules,” Magee said of the curbside buses.
Councilmember Chin 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,” Chin said, “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 its own 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 all new carriers to undergo comprehensive safety audits before putting buses on the road.
Last November, commercial bus drivers were barred from talking on cell phones while driving, which followed a 2010 federal ban on their texting while driving.