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Transportation Nation

What Does Acquittal of Chinatown Bus Driver Mean for Safety?

Friday, December 07, 2012

The World Wide Travel Bus that crashed March 2011, killing 15. (NTSB Photo)

The driver of a casino bus that crashed, killing 15, is not guilty of manslaughter. Prosecutors had argued Ophadell Williams was so sleep-deprived and drowsy behind the wheel that it was as reckless as if he were drunk.

But a Bronx jury was not convinced. Williams faced 15 counts of manslaughter and was acquitted on all of them. He was found guilty of one count of aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle and sentenced to 30 days in jail, which he has already served. He has to pay a fine of $500. When he heard the verdict, Williams covered his face with his hands and wept.

Though the consequences are relatively light for Williams,  the inter-city bus industry has suffered a considerable shakeup.

The Crash

It was a gruesome crash that instantly raised the profile of dangerous driving conditions at many so-called Chinatown buses, the fastest growing mode of inter-city travel.

Here's how the crash went down. In March, 2011, Williams was on a dawn run to New York from a Connecticut Casino, driving for World Wide Travel, a company with a track record of pushing drivers to work long hours.

A report by the Federal Motorcoach Safety Administration found that in the moments before crashing, he’d been driving 78 mph. As we've previously reported:

"According to the report, the bus swerved to the right off the highway, crossed an eleven-foot wide shoulder and smashed into a three-foot-tall steel guardrail. The bus plowed through the guardrail for 480 feet as it toppled onto its side. The bus’ windshield hit the post of a massive highway sign, which sheared the bus in two along the base of the passenger windows almost all the way to the rear. The bus came to rest on top of the crushed guardrail, its wheels in the air, facing the highway."

The Bronx crash was one of three inter-city bus crashes in the Northeast in March, 2011, which killed a total of 17 people and injured dozens of others.

There were more to come. A bus from North Carolina bound for New York flipped on its roof in late May, killing four. Operator Sky Express was shut down by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration within hours. Bloomberg reported that Sky Express had accumulated so many violations that it could have been shut down prior to the crash.

In July, a pair of fatal crashes in New York — one inbound from Canada that left the driver dead and another from Washington that killed two — occurred within days of each other.

There were 24 motor coach crashes last year, resulting in 34 fatalities and 467 injuries, according to an unofficial tally kept by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

The industry was deemed unsafe by many. As confused travelers tried to figure out just who regulates Chinatown buses, the government took notice.

The Response

World Wide Travel was shuttered in June 2011, but the owner continued to operate bus service for other companies he owns, according to The New York Times. The practice of "reincarnation" had plagued regulatory efforts to punish the worst of the worst bus companies.

Not to be stopped by it's own regulations, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration the agency that oversees bus safety, along with the National Highway Transportation Safety Board ratcheted up investigations and actions against unsafe bus companies.

In May of 2011, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood issued rules requiring new bus lines to undergo safety audits before they can sell their first ticket. And bus drivers could lose their commercial licenses if they violate drug and alcohol laws even while operating their own private car.

In July 2011, Anne S. Ferro, Administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, told Congress she needs more enforcement powers, including the ability to inspect every long distance bus at least once a year and to conduct surprise safety stops while buses are en route. She proposed paying for the additional enforcement through raising the fee for a company to obtain an operating license from US DOT.

She pointed out, a bus license costs $300 — $50 less than it costs a street vendor to sell hot dogs in Washington, DC. Ferro said she’d also like to see the fine for a bus safety violation raised from $2,000 to $25,000.

Inspections alone are unlikely to solve the problem, she argued. There just aren't enough of them. There are 878 federal and state inspectors able to conduct safety reviews of 765,000 bus and truck companies, or an average of slightly more than one inspector for 1,000 companies, the report said.

For a while it seemed like the tempers had cooled, and the regulators were backing off. Then the crackdown came.

Crackdown

In June 2012, the U.S. DOT shuts down 26 bus companies that operate along the most popular routes for so-called Chinatown buses: the I-95 corridor from New York to Florida. The DOT called it the "largest single safety crackdown in the agency’s history.

Federal safety investigators found multiple violations, including a pattern of drivers without valid commercial licenses and companies that didn't administer alcohol and drug tests to drivers. Ten people – company owners, managers and employees – are ordered to stop all involvement in passenger transportation operations, including selling bus tickets.

The intersection in Chinatown in New York City previously most associated with this class of bus was transformed, no longer a bustling hub roaring with the sound of diesel engines and ticket sellers competing for business with dueling calls of prices and destinations. It became a quiet side street and has remained so since.

What's to Come

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has made safety one of his top issues, is advocating for legislation with stronger teeth.

The Bus Uniform Standards and Enhanced Safety (BUSES) Act of 2011 called for a tighter controls and enforcement of bus driver screening, including calling for federal oversight of state requirements for commercial licenses.

The Motorcoach Safety Act of 2009 was also revisited after the 2011 string of crashes. It requires new buses to add seat belts and reinforced windows that prevent passengers from being ejected during an accident. The bus industry opposed both bills on cost grounds and neither became law.

New York City, which cannot regulate interstate bus safety, took the step to regulate bus stop permitting, giving more control to neighborhood leadership, known as community boards. Since then, there have not been new clusters of curbside buses competing with each other.

And as Chinese-run Chinatown buses remain discreet in New York's Chinatown, mainstream bus companies like Greyhound are expanding their curbside businesses, actively meeting with community boards to add stops in Chinatown itself.

(This report includes excerpts and descriptions from previous reporting on TN, by Alex Goldmark, Jim O'Grady and Tracie Samuelson.)

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Transportation Nation

Curbs Empty in NY's Chinatown After Bus Crackdown

Friday, June 01, 2012

Local mini-buses take over what is usually a bustling Chinatown bus stop at East Broadway in Manhattan. (Photo by Alex Goldmark)

The biggest curbside bus stop in Chinatown has no buses.

The popular East Broadway stop under the Manhattan Bridge — typically abuzz with ticket sellers, passengers and idling sparsely labeled motorcoaches — was no more than a quiet side street Friday afternoon, a day after the federal government shut down 26 bus operators in the single largest safety crackdown of the industry.

Two blocks away, he Chinatown office of New Century Travel, one of the operators shut down in the sweep, was shuttered on Friday afternoon. The company operated routes to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., leaving no clear option for a Chinatown to D.C. bus trip. That route was one of the first to become popular -- originally with college students and other very price sensitive travelers -- a key step in helping the curbside bus model spread from a cheap alternative to Greyhound for supercommuting members of the Chinese community and into the a mainstream mode of travel it has become. Curbside buses are the fastest growing mode of travel in the nation.

Speaking in Chinatown Thursday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that over the course of a year-long investigation, his agency learned these companies were "blatantly and repeatedly" violated federal safety laws, including using drivers without valid commercial licenses and failing to do drug and alcohol testing.

"Shutting them down will save lives," LaHood said.

Teams of officials for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, armed with legal orders declaring the bus operations imminent hazards to public safety, swooped down Wednesday on companies based in six states: Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, New York, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Officials withheld details about the operation until Thursday.

The shutdown orders were aimed at the companies' headquarters and at bus pickup locations. Most of the 233 bus routes serviced by the companies either departed from or terminated in New York City's Chinatown district. The DOT says the routes shut down served 1,800 passengers a day.

Not all companies were shut down, Fung Wah bus, arguably the most well known brand of Chinatown bus which serves trips between New York and Boston, continued operations unchanged, as did other lines serving Boston, and at least two serving trips from New York to Virginia, South Carolina and Baltimore.

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Transportation Nation

Feds Shut Down Chinatown Bus Company Double Happyness

Thursday, December 29, 2011

(With AP) Federal authorities are shutting down a Pennsylvania-based bus company that operates in New York City citing safety concerns.

Authorities have ordered Double Happyness Travel to immediately cease operations declaring it an imminent hazard. U.S. Transportation officials say they found numerous violations related to vehicle maintenance. They also say the company failed to follow driver safety rules, including regular drug and alcohol testing and regulations governing the length of shifts.

Doubly Happyness takes passengers from Albany, Baltimore, and Wilmington, to stops in midtown Manhattan and Chinatown in New York City.

Calls by the AP to the company's headquarters in Huntingdon Valley, near Philadelphia were not returned. According to the government shutdown order, Double Happyness filed at least 49 false reports no driver activities, meaning that more than 20 percent of driver hour logs were falsified, double the number deemed "critical" to ensure drivers are getting enough breaks and rest to adhere to safety regulations.

According to a DOT press release, the Federal Motor Safety Administration has doubled inspections and safety reviews of the nation's 4,000 bus lines in recent years and "Roadside motorcoach inspections have jumped nearly 100 percent, from 12,991 in 2005 to 25,705 in 2010, while compliance reviews are up 128 percent, from 457 in 2005 to 1,042 in 2010."

Ridership has also spiked. Despite a series of high-profile crashes this year, a DePaul University study found the curbside bus industry, including "Chinatown buses," grew by almost 30 percent in 2011.

The Federal Department of Transportation teamed up with local law enforcement agencies to execute a crack down on bus carriers with about a week of ramped up surprise inspections around the nation in September.

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Transportation Nation

TN MOVING STORIES: Problems Delay Debut of LA's Expo Line, Boca Raton Rolls Out Bike Paramedics, North Dakota Oil Boom Strains Housing

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Top stories on TN:
New York’s Taxi Bill’s Long and Bumpy Ride (Link)
Maryland Moves Closer to Joining D.C. and Virginia in Capital Bikeshare Program (Link)
Hispanics Overrepresented in D.C. Area Pedestrian Deaths (Link)
DC Dangles Cash to Fight Congestion (Link)

Expo Station in Los Angeles (photo courtesy of BuildExpo.com)

The opening date for Los Angeles's long-awaited Expo Line has been postponed several times, and technical problems continue to delay the light rail system's operation. (Los Angeles Times)

The New York Times test-drives possible reasons for the FAA's ban on electronic devices during takeoff and landing. Verdict: "The only reason these rules exist from the F.A.A. is because of agency inertia and paranoia.” (Link)

What started out as commuter rail will end up as bus service on highway shoulders in the Kansas City area. (Kansas City Star)

Oil towns in North Dakota have spawned a robust job market, but there aren't enough homes for all the workers. (Marketplace)

More on the intercity bus boom. (Slate)

In Madrid -- and maybe one day in the Bronx -- parks bloom where freeways once ruled. (New York Times)

Boca Raton (FL) started a bicycle paramedic program. (AP via New York Daily News)

London's subway drivers walked out over a pay dispute Monday, causing trouble for thousands of shoppers heading out for the start of Christmas sales. (BBC)

Fare hikes and service cuts are looming in 2012 as Massachusetts' transit system tries to erase a deficit. (AP via WBUR)

A Boston T employee is in hot water after programming the LED display signs in one station with the lyrics to "Deck the Halls." (Boston Globe)

The head of the New York City Council's Transportation Committee is considering a range of legislation aimed at regulating bicyclists. (New York Posts)

TN's Todd Zwillich is hosting The Takeaway this morning.

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Transportation Nation

D.C. To Impose New Fees On Booming Intercity Bus Industry

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

(Washington D.C. - David Schultz, WAMU) The intercity bus industry is red-hot here in the Northeast Corridor. Almost a dozen companies have sprung up seemingly overnight to meet the demand for inexpensive, scheduled service between Washington D.C. and New York City.

These buses are more colloquially known as Chinatown Buses, because many of them pick up passengers on the curb in D.C.'s Chinatown neighborhood and drop them off on the curb in New York's Chinatown neighborhood. (And vice versa, of course.)

But now, for the first time, District officials are attempting to regulate this largely unregulated new industry. D.C.'s Department of Transportation will start charging bus companies a public space rental fee for use of the curb, which could total $80,000 a year or more. DDOT will also now be able to prevent bus companies from operating in certain locations in D.C.

For more info about this nascent industry and the rationale behind these new regulations, check out this story on WAMU.

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Transportation Nation

As Gas Prices Rise So Does Bus Ridership

Monday, May 02, 2011

(Alex Goldmark, Transportation Nation) Ahead of the busy summer travel season, inter-city bus ridership continues to climb despite the trio of recent crashes in the Northeast.

Robert Schwarz, Executive Vice President of Peter Phe said, “it's definitely increasing and we’re very optimistic for where it’s going to go this summer.” He added of rising gas prices, “it’s very good for the intercity bus industry” because travel is a discretionary item and habits can change with relative costs.

With gas over $4 a gallon, filling up the tank to go to Washington, D.C. can cost $60. You can get three bus tickets for that.

MegaBus has been expanding fast in the past few years, so it's hard to tell how gas prices might affect growth. Dale Moser, COO of MegaBus, said, that comparing ridership to this time last year on the same routes, the growth is "significantly greater" than projected, adding some of that "has to be somewhat related to gas." He cautioned, they do not ask riders to give the reason they choose the bus over driving when the buy a ticket.

Maureen Richmond of Bolt Bus had a slightly different report. For over a year, her company has been operating at above 95 percent capacity on weekends. So growth in ridership is difficult to identify, she says. But for weekday service, there's been a "slight uptick in passenger travel" in recent months. Bolt Bus is jointly owned by Greyhound and Peter Pan.

Overall, buses, particularly curbside pickup buses, are the fastest growing mode of intercity transportation. Professor Joseph Schwieterman of DePaul University studies the industry. He says, "the evidence suggests that ridership is up at least 33 percent now versus a year ago with all the new service as well as heightened fuel prices, but exact numbers are elusive." Pittsburgh recently added a bus hub that he says also contributed to new ridership numbers overall.

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Transportation Nation

Transit Riders Love Their Technology – Until Someone's Looking Over Their Shoulder

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

(photo by Gubatron/Flickr)

(San Francisco – Casey Miner, KALW News) More and more people are using iPads, laptops or smart phones when they travel  on public transportation – but that number might drop off as trains, planes and buses become more crowded.  New findings by the researchers at DePaul University show that use of technology on public transit grew at record rates last year. But public transit remains, well, public – and that means not everyone’s comfortable digging into personal emails or commenting liberally on Facebook.

The researchers measured how people's behavior changed as their surroundings grew more crowded, basing their findings on observations of more than 16,000 passengers on 215 bus, rail, and plane rides. "On the largest buses, seating about 80, technology use falls by more than a third when more than 40 people are on board," said Joe Schweiterman, one of the researchers on the study. The effects were similar on airplanes. In particular, people were much less likely to use devices with large screens, or to make cell phone calls, than they were when they felt their surroundings were private. "We hear endless complaints that the coach cabins of airplanes have become awful places to use technology," said Schweiterman.

Technology use remains most prevalent on the Acela trains in the Northeast corridor, which, at 42 inches each, has by far the roomiest seats. On those trains and on intercity buses, it was common for more than half of passengers to be glued to their devices. But when conditions get crowded, tech use goes down significantly. So as more people take, say, long-distance bus rides, will their own hangups keep them offline?

“Crowding is the enemy of those techno travelers who like to use multiple devices at once, such as working on laptops and placing cell phone calls," said Schweiterman. "In crowds, they abandoned this type of behavior.”

MEDIA ADVISORY: EMBARGOED UNTIL 3/22/2011

One in Five Bay Area Bridges Deemed Structurally Deficient
Federal Funds Fall Short as Need Increases

Contact: Seth Goddard, sethg@transformca.org, 415.272.7384 cell, 510.740.3150x310

A new report to be released Tuesday morning on the state of California’s bridges is eye opening, especially considering the destruction just witnessed in Japan: one in five Bay Area bridges is structurally deficient and this figure will continue to rise as an entire generation of bridges approaches their 50-year life expectancy.

Structurally deficient bridges are identified by the federal government as high priority for monitoring and repair, because of significant wear and tear or other defects to at least one part of the bridge.  These bridges will continue to deteriorate over time and may be closed or restricted due to safety concerns if the structurally deficiency is not addressed.

In recent years, California has spent all available federal funds for bridge repair, even putting additional flexible funds towards this purpose.  But the need far exceeds available funding.  Federal transportation policy continues to be heavily weighted towards building new roads rather than fixing existing bridges, roads, and public transportation systems.  Congress is currently reviewing these policies with the intention of passing a new federal transportation bill later this year.

Given the economic crisis and current Congressional budget debates, prioritizing funding for repairs and maintenance first makes good sense.  Deferring maintenance of bridges and highways can cost three times as much as preventative repairs[1].  Repair work on roads and bridges generates 16% more jobs than new bridge and road construction, too[2].

The report from Transportation For America, which includes a statewide review of bridge safety in California, is based on analysis of the Federal Highway Administration’s National Bridge Inventory Data.  While the report is embargoed until Tuesday, advanced copies of the report will be provided upon request.

WHAT: Release of Transportation For America’s report, “The Fix We’re In For: The State of California’s Bridges.”

WHEN: Report officially released Tuesday, March 22, 2011.  Statewide Telebriefing at 11:00 a.m.

WHERE: Telebriefing  - Tuesday March 22nd, 2011 at 11:00am

  • Call-in number: 424-203-8075, Code: 576981#
  • Speakers can be made available for additional questions after the call

WHO:

  • Marnie Primmer, Executive Director, Mobility 21
  • Engineer, Caltrans, TBD
  • Hasan Ikhrata, Executive Director, Southern California Association of Governments
  • Joe Cruz, Director of Transportation Policy, California Alliance for Jobs
  • Jean Quan, Mayor, Oakland, (invited)

VISUAL: Iconic bridges in the Bay Area as a backdrop for relevant speakers (elected officials, agency staff, TransForm staff) who will comment on the findings.  Reporters may contact us beforehand for specific locations for planning purposes and to schedule times with speakers.

Key findings for the Bay Area include:

County Number of bridges Number of structurally deficient bridges Percentage of bridges that are structurally deficient Average annual daily traffic on structurally deficient bridges
San Francisco 116 40 34.5% 2,569,899
Alameda 601 130 21.6% 5,608,117
San Mateo 344 74 21.5% 3,064,075
Sonoma 601 121 20.1% 737,485
Santa Clara 939 182 19.4% 5,804,761
Contra Costa 560 105 18.8% 3,241,193
Marin 199 31 15.6% 1,117,587
Napa 150 23 15.3% 80,153

“It’s clear: our transportation infrastructure is in crisis,” says Stuart Cohen, TransForm’s executive director.  “The era of building new highways is over.  Federal transportation funding needs to focus on fixing what we already have and then expanding only in ways that reduce our dependence on oil, like better public transportation, biking, and walking options.”

The national average for deficient bridges is 11.5%, while the Bay Area’s average is 20%.

#  #  #


[1]American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.  Bridging the Gap: Restoring and Rebuilding the Nation’s Bridges. July 2008.  http://roughroads.transportation.org/
[2]Smart Growth for America.  The Best Stimulus for The Money. www.smartgrowthamerica.org/stimulus.html

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Transportation Nation

Waiting For High-Speed Rail? In the Meantime, Take a Bus

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

High-speed rail is getting a lot of attention--from President Obama's call for a nationwide rail network, to Florida's Rick Scott being the latest in a string of Republican governors to cancel rail plans--but bullet trains are by no means the only emerging intercity transportation mode.

Buses are on the rise. In fact, high-tech buses are the fastest growing form of intercity transportation. New companies like Megabus, and Bolt Bus, a subsidiary of Greyhound, are snagging new passengers away from air and rail competitors each year with low fares and streetside pick ups. So much so that some cities are considering regulating the fast growing industry.

In California, Casey Miner or KALW investigates if this rising trend might act as an interim substitute for high-speed rail, which will take a decade or more to complete from Los Angeles to San Fransisco.  Hear all about it over at KALW News.

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Transportation Nation

Rural Residents Losing Access to Intercity Transportation, Report Says

Thursday, February 17, 2011

(Helena-Jackie Yamanaka, YPR) About 3.5 million rural residents lost access to scheduled intercity bus, ferry, and rail transportation between 2005 and 2010. That’s according to a new report from the U-S Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS).

The report says North Dakota had the lowest percentage of rural residents with access to intercity transportation.

BTS reported significant changes for the state  since 2005, including reductions in Greyhound Lines bus services and the suspension of Amtrak’s Sunset Limited New Orleans-Jackson route.

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Transportation Nation

NYC Might Regulate Chinatown Buses

Friday, February 04, 2011

(Wikimedia Commons)

(New York City--Alva French and Alex Goldmark, WNYC/Transportation Nation) The cheap intercity curbside pick-up buses--also known as Chinatown buses--may get regulated in New York City. That's if one politician gets his way.

State Senator Daniel Squadron is introducing a bill that would allow New York City to issue permits and designate official pick-up and drop-off points. Currently the buses use just about any open curb space. There is also a law allowing any bus to pick up or discharge passengers at any bus stop.

Speaking on a corner in New York's Chinatown where the buses often stop, Squadron said he wants lawmakers, the community, and bus companies to address the chaos and congestion on busy streets.

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