A Private Bus Service Picks Up Slack from MTA Cuts, but with Questions

A number of private bus companies and van drivers are trying to pick up the slack left by this summer's MTA's service cuts. They're thinking private enterprise could operate those routes more efficiently than the public sector -- and even make a profit. In late June, one company, Mr. S Charter Services, started running along a former express bus route in Brooklyn.

The buses don’t look like typical MTA buses. When one pulls up to Coney Island Avenue and Avenue X after 7:30 one morning, its windshield is embalzoned with the words "God Bless America" and "Blessed Save with Grace."

“He's a lifesaver,” says one rider, Carole Ragab, about Mr. S (whose full name is Steve Lowery). “We wouldn't have a bus to take.”

Ragab is one of almost 200 riders who are taking Mr. S's buses each day: annuity salesmen, city employees, clerks who work for labor unions. They all live deep in Brooklyn and would rather pay more for the bus than take the subway, for one reason or other. Gail Schlesser takes it because of a knee injury that never healed. “It's easier for me to get on the bus rather than schlepping up and down the stairs,” she says.

The interiors of Mr. S's coaches are a bit more worn out than a typical MTA vehicle. But his buses stop at the same places where the old X29 express bus did until the MTA’s service cuts in late June. They start in Coney Island and ending up in Midtown Manhattan. Forty minutes into the ride, there are only a handful of seats empty. That's when Mrs. S, the owner's wife, boards the bus and collects $5 from everyone.

That's about as much as the MTA charged. But the MTA says the route required a $10 subsidy per rider.

Shawn Turanov, a computer programmer, prefers Mr. Steve's bus company to the MTA exactly because it operates without subsidies. “Over here a private company took it over, it pays for itself, no complaints,” Turanov says. “It's very well scheduled, the bus is always on time.”

But there are hidden problems. Lowery was running charter buses throughout the Northeast before he took on this job. But in order to pick up and discharge passengers on routes within the five boroughs, he needs authorization from the city. A Transportation Department spokesman wouldn't confirm that he has that authorization.

On interstate routes, federal inspectors have taken Mr. S's buses out of service almost twice as frequently than the national average. That's because inspectors found safety violations, including worn out tires, inadequate emergency exits and unqualified drivers.

The New York State Department of Transportation also found problems when Lowery was operating long-distance routes to upstate prisons.

“The company that you mentioned has $9,100 in fines by our State Department of Transportation inspection unit during this past year,” said spokesman Charles O’Shea.

Lowery says he's contesting the state fines and is trying to apply for authorization to run his route on Coney Island Avenue. He says he's providing a service to a community that was "abandoned" by the city and the MTA. It was the X29's riders who recruited him to take over the route, not the other way around.