Who Regulates Chinatown Buses?

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(Alex Goldmark, Transportation Nation) A second fatal bus crash in as many days has sparked renewed calls for increased regulation and safety oversight on so-called Chinatown buses. There just isn't that much oversight to begin with now.

The Super Luxury Tours charter bus flipped on its side while headed to Philadelphia from New York City's Chinatown. The driver was killed, along with one passenger. About 40 people were sent to area hospitals,  according to police.The cause of the crash remains unknown.

Listen to a radio report on WNYC about bus regulations and these two crashes.

The second crash comes as National Transportation Safety Board investigators are set to interview the driver of the World Wide Tours bus that crashed on Saturday, killing 15. The driver of that bus, Ophadell Williams, has not been charged with anything at this time, but he has come under public scrutiny after his initial story was contradicted by passengers and witnesses. His driving record is also under review because, investigators say, he gave a false name several times when stopped for traffic violations in the past. Federal and state investigators want to know if that should have resulted in a suspension of his driving privileges and why the violations weren't linked to his commercial driving record.

New York Governor Cuomo said he's "asking the NTSB do a top to bottom review of this industry."

Right now there isn't all that much regulation of intercity bus companies, Chinatown or otherwise, says DePaul University transportation professor Joseph Schwieterman.

"What's surprising about the bus sector is there's no directory or no single place where you can go to find out who's serving what markets," he says. "It's pretty much an amorphous system of companies that come and go with very few people noticing," he adds.

Currently, bus companies are regulated much like trucking companies by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. It performs random inspections for vehicle safety and driver certification. Transportation Nation reviewed the record of World Wide Tours, which is actually better than average in several respects though it shows two crashes with injury in the previous 24 months. Still, one problem cited by a News21 report is that companies that fail consistently can simply dissolve and start again under a new name.

Professor Schwieterman explains, "In intercity commerce it's remarkably easy to start a bus company. You don't need permission from the cities. It's not quite like air service, you basically need to, upon request, show you are meeting highway safety requirements, and that can be pretty minimal." (We covered his research on the growth of these buses back in January.)

Local officials in New York want to see more regulation. State Senator Daniel Squadron told Transportation Nation, "the federal government has got to do a better job. And frankly I wish the state and city were allowed to do more constitutionally. But since we're not, that means get a permit system, in place, be able to track these companies, be able to use the federal safety information on a local level to protect people in our communities." As we reported last month, he's introduced legislation that, he hopes, would give the city the right to monitor the buses.

The economic advantages of using the curb as a free pick-up point is part of the fuel for the 25 percent growth in the industry in 2010. That's mainly in the Northeast and due in large part to major growth by MegaBus and BoltBus, a Greyhound subsidiary. Amenities like on board internet also explain the growth, says Schwieterman.

Even Squadron and other politicians calling for more oversight acknowledge the value brought by these buses. New York City Council Woman Margaret Chin, who represents Chinatown, says  "This is an affordable transportation for many communities in New York City, but it has to be safe." Chin and Squadron both say they don't want Chinatown buses to go away. They just want more regulation.

Currently, New York state law says that any bus can pick-up or drop-off passengers at any bus stop. That makes it difficult to regulate or require permits. Boston is the only city along the Northeast corridor to require buses to use a bus station.