Three years after the State Legislature passed a law allowing New York City to regulate intercity buses, the police department is still not enforcing it. That was the big, frustrating takeaway at last night’s town hall meeting sponsored by Community Board 3.
The meeting brought together officials from the NYPD, city and state transportation departments and other agencies to examine why the law isn’t working as intended. At the urging of Community Board 3, State Sen. Daniel Squadron and then Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver pushed through legislation in 2012 aimed at taming the “Wild West” atmosphere caused by the proliferation of the intercity bus industry. It established a permit system that required bus operators to load and unload passengers only from approved locations. Yet today, there are more buses than ever, including a large number operating illegally with no permit.
Representatives from local police precincts came ready with statistics to show they’re focused on the problem. The 5th Precinct has written 940 tickets so far this year related to intercity buses. The 7th Precinct has slapped bus companies with more than 1400 summonses in the same time period. But during questioning by Sen. Squadron, 5th Precinct Captain Erik Worobey acknowledged that the vast majority of tickets being issued are for violations like “no standing” and double parking.
These summonses carry fines of about $115, compared with the types of violations authorized in in the Intercity Bus Law. The legislation allows cops to write tickets for up to $500 on a first offense and $2500 for a second offense. Worobey conceded he didn’t know the particulars of the intercity bus law. He called it a “training issue” for his officers. “I don’t have the knowledge to properly enforce it,” Worobey said. Squadron called the revelations “frustrating.” CB3 District Manager Susan Stetzer said, “We fought for years for this legislation and it really isn’t being used.” She asked the officials up on stage to help rectify the problem. They seemed to agree to “continue the conversation.”
“Anyone picking up or dropping off passengers without a permit,” Squadron said, “is a rogue operator.” Unlicensed businesses, he noted, are “usually a big deal in this city,” but when it comes to intercity buses there seems to be a more lackadaisical attitude. Margaret Forgione, a city transportation department official, said her agency does what it can but added that operators must be reminded of the law “through enforcement.” Translation: It’s the NYPD’s problem. Inspector Scott Hanover of the NYPD’s traffic division said, “We enforce the law,” but he explained that the department’s leeway is limited, since most of the bus companies have their headquarters out-of-state.
After various officials had their say, residents were given some time to speak out about the impact of the unregulated buses on the Lower East Side and in Chinatown. Helen Pappert, who has lived in the neighborhood for 58 years, called the situation unbearable. She complained about the health effects of idling engines and the safety hazard caused by overcrowded streets. Pappert recalled an instance in which she had to walk out into Allen Street to flag down a city bus with her cane because a private carrier was blocking the bus stop. She angrily told officials, “You live in this neighborhood and see what’s it’s like” on a daily basis. Michelle Barone, a longtime Pike Street resident, related a recent ordeal in which bus passengers followed an elderly resident into her building. “They have no regard for trespassing laws,” Barone said. “There’s no enforcement whatsoever.”
Emma Culbert of the SPaCE Block Association recalled a community board meeting several months ago in which local police officers admitted they’re overwhelmed in dealing with the problem. “We are living in a zone that has been deemed unmanageable. This is unacceptable,” she said. Culbert warned that it’s just a matter of time before a child is killed due to the dangerous conditions caused by too many intercity buses in a residential area. Michael Chen, an East Broadway business owner, said the scene outside is office is a “disaster. People are 10-deep on the sidewalk. He calls 311 to complain, but by the time cops arrive, the buses and their passengers are gone.
Chuck Lin, creator of the watchdog website Save LES Streets, pointed out that the neighborhood has a large senior population and a large low-income population. He said it’s wrong to saddle the community with so many buses. He noted that some people have moved away from calling the intercity carriers “Chinatown buses.” Lin said, “Don’t whitewash this, It’s not an Upper East Side issue. It’s a Chinatown issue.”
City Council member Margaret Chin said it’s always been important to her to balance the need for the low-cost bus industry as a lifeline in Chinatown with quality of life and safety concerns. She echoed Squadron’s concerns about enforcement of the law. And Chin called on the city to crack down on operators shuttling people to casinos in other states. “These companies are draining resources from the community,” said Chin. “They shouldn’t be getting permits.”
While the owners of some bus companies were in attendance, they did not speak last night. Their point of view was largely expressed by Wellington Chen, head of the Chinatown Partnership. The focus of enforcement efforts, he argued, should be on safety — making sure that rogue operators are taken off the road. But he said there are many good operators who have been running their businesses in Chinatown for many years. Chen doesn’t want to see them victimized. “It is a service (that they provide),” he asserted. “We need to maintain connectivity (among Chinatowns up and down the East Coast). Chinatown is dying.” Chen said he believes the city should establish certain fixed areas in the neighborhood where buses can operate. The current system, in which bus companies propose locations and the community shoots them down, is counterproductive, he argued.