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Long IslandTransportation

DOT: 'Unsafe' curbside bus operators shut

New York State Department of Transportation Motor Carrier

New York State Department of Transportation Motor Carrier Safety agents inspect a bus in Chinatown. (May 31, 2012) Credit: Charles Eckert

Twenty-six bus operations -- including four carriers in New York State -- were shut down this week after a yearlong federal investigation found a network of operators posed an "imminent hazard" to public safety.

The U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration announced the move Thursday after it took steps Wednesday to shutter the 26 following what the agency said was the largest safety crackdown in its history.

Three firms -- Apex Bus Inc., I95 Coach Inc. and New Century Travel Inc. -- controlled a network of companies nationwide, resulting in the shutdown orders, the department said. The networks included one ticket seller, nine active bus companies, 13 companies ordered out of service that were operating, and three companies applying for permission to operate.

The companies, based out of New York, Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, transported more than 1,800 passengers a day along Interstate 95, from New York to Florida, said officials.

East Meadow-based Twins Jiang Corp. is one of nine entities associated with I95 Coach; Apex Bus operated two carriers in New York: A One Bus Inc., of Rochester, and Manhattan-based Apex Bus NY; and New Century Travel operated Black Leopard Travel Inc. out of Brooklyn. Attempts to contact representatives were unsuccessful.

At a news conference in Manhattan's Chinatown, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the move was "a warning to unscrupulous carriers." He noted Twins Jiang was out of service but continued to operate illegally, as did Apex Bus NY, whose operating authority was revoked in 2008 and "has never been reinstated."

A One Bus and Black Leopard Travel were active but were stripped of authority to operate on Wednesday.

Officials said the investigation used vehicle identification numbers to connect operators and key personnel.

Investigators found the carriers had multiple safety violations, including using drivers without valid commercial driver's licenses and failing to enforce drug/alcohol screening.

The companies operated vehicles that had not been regularly inspected and repaired, and their drivers had serious hours-of-service and driver qualification violations, the agency said.

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood warned curbside operators to follow the rules. "Keep people safe, or we will shut you down," he said.

The investigation was prompted by a series of bus crashes last spring, including the March crash on I-95 in the Bronx that killed 15. Two days later, a crash on the New Jersey Turnpike involving a bus headed from Chinatown to Philadelphia killed two. The bus in the Bronx crash had been headed to Chinatown. Neither of those companies was among the 26 named Thursday.

FMCSA administrator Anne S. Ferro said the agency was looking into other carriers' operations and continues to monitor the 26 operators to ensure they don't reopen. Buses were slapped with large orange "out of service" stickers, she said in Manhattan. "We have absolutely zero tolerance for these companies."

Legislation Schumer has proposed would require bus lines to post safety ratings on bus windows and at ticket counters and booths, similar to restaurant inspection ratings. "Let the consumer make the choice," he said.

One couple from Hampton, Va., was among those caught by the shutdown. Kim Johnson and Hasan Ford, both 30, arrived in New York on Sunday. Thursday, after going to the I95 Coach/Coach 88 ticket center in Chinatown, they found their 4:30 p.m. bus had been canceled. They weren't told why and were offered a $50 refund on their $120 round-trip tickets.

They said they weren't surprised the carrier had been shut for safety violations. On the drive up, Johnson said, the driver appeared distracted. "He was singing, talking on the phone, the music was loud," she said.

But another rider who lives in New York City and North Carolina said she won't be deterred. She's taken curbside buses for a year and a half and said they're cheaper than mainstream buses and more convenient.

Thursday, Fran Ventre, 70, was heading to Boston. "There are very few viable alternatives in travel in this country without paying a lot of money," Ventre said. "I know there are safety issues. I would like it if they were more careful, but I don't want costs to get out of line."

Finding on I95 Coach Inc.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration investigation found "deficient safety management" by I95 Coach Inc., which operates East Meadow-based Twins Jiang Corp. and eight other bus companies. Among the agency's findings:

I95 Coach lacks adequate means to determine if drivers are qualified.

It fails to ensure drivers comply with hours of service and does not keep required records.

It fails to administer driver drug and alcohol testing.

If fails to ensure its commercial vehicles are properly and regularly inspected, repaired and maintained.

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