NEW YORK — Every time a charter bus is involved in a grisly crash such as the one that left three people dead in the Queens borough of New York City last week, elected officials demand more scrutiny of the thousands of U.S. companies that privately operate buses. But they do not need to look any farther than Chinatown in Manhattan to see how challenging it can be to stop even a serial violator of the rules of the roads.
Dahlia Group, the company whose bus slammed into a city bus at a Flushing intersection on Sept. 18, killing Dahlia’s driver, a city bus passenger and a pedestrian, had a checkered past. Though a cause has yet to be determined, the company’s record includes two other fatal crashes in the past 14 years, both while ferrying gamblers to casinos.
But Dahlia is not the only bus company operating with a history of safety violations. Another private operator, Yep Tour, continues to pick up passengers in Chinatown even after community leaders have repeatedly pleaded with city officials to shut down the company because of its “massive accumulation of fines” and its “ongoing disregard for the law.”
Yep has been hit with 210 safety violations in just the past two years, 34 of them for unsafe driving, according to records from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Its history of unsafe driving has ranked it in the bottom 10 percent of all bus companies nationwide for three years running, the administration’s data show.
After Yep ran up more than $300,000 in unpaid fines while operating without a required city permit, the New York City sheriff’s office seized three of the company’s buses early this year.
Still, months later, New York City issued the company a permit, designating a spot for it to pick up and drop off passengers who ride the company’s 10 buses between New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The decision prompted a sharp rebuke from the community board that represents Chinatown and surrounding neighborhoods in lower Manhattan.
“We’re doing everything we can to address a problem while it’s still a problem and not a tragedy,” said Chad Marlow, the chairman of the community board’s committee on transportation, public safety and environment. “What has to happen for a company to have their permit yanked?”
Yep and Dahlia are just two competitors in the nation’s biggest market for bus transportation. With more than 3,200 companies across the country, the $5 billion private bus industry is sprawling and diverse, encompassing corporate operators of scheduled intercity service, such as Greyhound and Coach USA, as well as small businesses with just one or two buses.
In the Northeast, many companies are discount lines known as Chinatown buses, which run between Asian enclaves in large cities. Others contract with casinos in Atlantic City, Pennsylvania and Connecticut to deliver gamblers from early morning until late at night.
Most businesses abide by federal and state laws. But some have flouted the rules, skimping on maintenance and forcing drivers to maintain schedules that leave them exhausted. Those factors have contributed to several horrific crashes that have led to calls for greater scrutiny.
After 10 people died in a charter bus crash in California, state lawmakers last year tried to tighten safety regulations. But state Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Democrat, said that when he proposed sweeping measures recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board, such as installing safer windows and keeping data recordings of trips, he ran into legal hurdles because when it comes to buses federal law pre-empts local law.
In the end, the state adopted far weaker legislation requiring bus drivers to instruct passengers on using emergency exits and safety equipment and mandating that charter buses built after July 2020 be equipped with automatic emergency lighting.
“It is frustrating that local legislatures can’t do more to make buses safer, even if it just means putting recommendations made at the federal level into state law,” Lara said. “We got the most we could with safety lights and training for passengers, but our hands were tied by outdated federal safety regulations.”
The chief obstacle in trying to drive out a company like Yep, Marlow said, is the patchwork system of regulation and oversight by federal, state and local governments. The main regulator of buses that run across state lines is the federal Department of Transportation, but aside from compiling performance data on companies, the agency rarely penalizes bus lines for repeated safety violations. The states have licensing powers, but local agencies do not have many tools to limit the activity of these companies.
Indeed, lawyers for Yep Tour, which is incorporated in Massachusetts, cited the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution when they sued New York City in February for refusing to grant the company a permit. They argued that the city had no right to interfere with an out-of-state company’s interstate operations.
The suit was settled in April when the city relented and gave Yep a six-month permit. Jeremy Walker, Yep’s owner, said his company paid $172,000 to get its buses back and had paid at least $150,000 in weekly installments toward paying off all of its fines.
Walker said “there were some issues” with the way Yep operated, but he said he had taken an aggressive approach, including retraining his drivers and punishing them for getting caught speeding. He said he hoped that the city would approve a renewal of Yep’s permit because the company is providing a service by offering low-cost transportation.
“If we were shut down, do you know how many of these rogue companies would rush in to take our place?” Walker said. “If they get caught, they shut down and open another company. At least with us, they can keep their eyes on us, and I know they have their eyes on me.”
Yep’s low fares — $12 one-way and $20 round-trip between Manhattan and Philadelphia — were the main appeal for Shirley Reed, 65, who was waiting in line on a Chinatown sidewalk. She was headed to Philadelphia to look for a home after losing her apartment in New York City. She preferred to travel by Amtrak, she said, but it was not an option.
“I can’t afford the train right now,'’ she said. “The bus is good enough.”
City officials have not explained why they relented despite Yep’s scofflaw ways. But they admitted that their powers over interstate bus operators are limited.
Several years ago, the proliferation of low-budget buses in and around Chinatown prompted local officials to find ways to rein them in. Their idea was a state law pushed by former state Sen. Daniel Squadron and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, both Democrats, that gave the city the power to decide whether and where a particular company could pick up and discharge passengers on city streets.
Polly Trottenberg, the city’s transportation commissioner, said permits helped ensure that buses do not end up bunched together in any one place and cause congestion, noise and pollution problems.
“We’re doing the best we can to mitigate their impact, but we don’t have unfettered ability to say, ‘You can’t come here,'” Trottenberg said. “There is a regulatory framework for these buses — it just happens to be at the federal and state level.”
The city issued permits for 35 bus stops last year, down from 46 permits in 2013. This year, it has approved 30 permits so far.
A bus company is required to apply for a permit for each curbside location that it wants to use. The city bases its decision on factors such as traffic and pedestrian flow, parking, public health and safety, and the recommendation of the local community board, but not necessarily a company’s driving record. Once issued by the city, the permits are valid for up to three years.
But not all private bus companies obtain permits. Dahlia did not have a permit, according to city records.
The company had made regular runs between the city and casinos, including Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, in the past. But, last year, after one of its buses slid off Interstate 95 in Connecticut and overturned, killing one person, that relationship ended. “We don’t use Dahlia any more,” said Cody Chapman, a spokesman for Mohegan Sun.
Raymond D. Mong, who was driving the Dahlia bus that federal investigators said was speeding at close to 60 mph when it crashed, had been convicted of drunken driving in October 2015. He was arrested after crashing his wife’s car into another in Connecticut and fleeing. Mong, 49, received 18 months of probation, according to Justin Smith, the lawyer who defended him in that case.
His case illustrates another weakness in the regulation of these drivers. When New York state officials were asked why Mong was allowed to drive a bus again so soon, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Motor Vehicles said it was unaware that he was driving for Dahlia because the company had not notified the department as required by law.
The transportation safety board, which is investigating the crash in Queens, has not identified a cause, nor has it said where the bus was coming from or going.
In a tearful interview at a Brooklyn restaurant, Mong’s widow, Wong Suet Wong, said her husband had been well rested when he left home for the Dahlia depot in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens. She said he was scheduled to pick up a group of passengers and drive them to Washington. Generally, drivers cannot work more than 10 hours consecutively or more than 80 hours in seven days.
Officials of Dahlia have not responded to repeated requests for comment.
After the crash, Assemblyman Ron Kim, D-Flushing, said “there has to be an immediate crackdown with the attorney general’s office and DMV and any other agency that has oversight of this.”
The streets of Flushing, he said, were jammed with private buses of all sorts, some of them competing for passengers with city buses. But he said the majority of the large coaches, up to 45 feet long, are trolling for casino customers.
“These casino companies for decades have consistently targeted these neighborhoods that have a majority of Asian-Americans and immigrants,” Kim said.
Bus drivers and riders interviewed made it clear that demand for the services remains strong, regardless of the safety records of the operators.
Arthur Jenkins, who drives casino runs for Skyliner, said he works five days a week, 10 hours a shift. He said he sleeps an hour or two on his bus after he arrives at a casino. He said he knew that some other bus companies pushed their drivers too hard.
“They’re trying to make money, so they’re going to try to keep buses on the road,” Jenkins said. “You can’t give guys a lot of work like that. You’ve got to give them days off, have to.”
In Flushing, Fabio Serrano was waiting for passengers to fill up the Skyliner bus he would drive to the Foxwoods casino in Connecticut. Serrano described the urban portion of the journey as stressful because of the traffic, and because “everybody wants to give you a ticket.
Gesturing with his hand over his chest to indicate a rapidly beating heart, Serrano said, “In the city, your tension goes like this.” He added. “That’s why there’s so many accidents.”