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Transportation Nation

DOT Head Questioned Over Support of MWAA Leadership

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

After U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood praised the beleaguered Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority at a Congressional hearing last autumn, two Democratic members of Congress did a slow burn and sent separate letters to him, stating they were "troubled" and "disappointed and concerned" by his support for MWAA.

MWAA oversees the D.C. area's airports -- and is in charge of the massive $6 billion Silver Line rail project. In recent months the agency has been trying to repair its image after a federal audit that found the agency had unethical hiring and questionable contracting practices. The agency also battled Virginia's governor, who sought to oust a member of its board, and it's being sued by a former employee. Now, it's hiring an outside public relations firm.

Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards and West Virginia Rep. Nick Rahall, members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, wrote LaHood following his November 16 testimony in which he expressed “a lot of confidence in” MWAA’s CEO Jack Potter and MWAA board chairman Michael Curto.

Potter, Curto, and MWAA board vice-chairman Tom Davis were all called to testify about the findings in an audit by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general.  The audit revealed a litany of questionable hiring and contracting practices – a “culture of nepotism” – inside MWAA.

“In light to these admissions to serious missteps, and those highlighted in the Inspector General’s (IG) report, I am troubled by the support you expressed in their continued leadership,” Edwards wrote LaHood. “I would appreciate a more complete explanation of your support for the current leadership of MWAA despite their admission and the IG’s report.”

Edwards Letter to LaHood


Congresswoman Edwards declined to comment on this story, but Secretary LaHood’s office provided the following statement:

“Secretary LaHood met with Congresswoman Edwards on January 23, 2013 to respond to her letter.  They had a productive discussion of the steps the Department of Transportation has taken to improve accountability and transparency at MWAA, and the Secretary promised to work with the Congresswoman and other interested Members from the Washington Metropolitan area on this issue moving forward.”

Congressman Rahall’s February 15 letter to Sec. LaHood expressed the same concerns about the federal transportation’s chief stated confidence in Potter and Curto.

“I was disappointed and concerned by your testimony that you ‘have a lot of confidence’ the chairman of MWAA’s board of directors and MWAA’s chief executive officer, particularly in view of the fact that these individuals, by their own acknowledgement, were involved in some of the questionable conduct identified by the Inspector General,” wrote Rahall, the committee’s ranking member.

Rahall Letter to LaHood

In their November testimony, the two MWAA leaders said many of the transgressions outlined in the audit took place before they assumed their current positions. There were, however, notable cases in which they were directly involved: a law firm that employed Curto’s wife was granted a $100,000 no-bid contract to provide legal counsel.

“I was not chairman at the time. I was not on the legal committee at the time. The general counsel for [MWAA] made the decision to retain the law firm. My wife at the time was an employee at that law firm… she had no direct or indirect financial interest in the law firm,” explained Curto. “Although it wasn’t an actual conflict of interest it certainly was an appearance of a conflict of interest.”

Potter was questioned about the hiring of former MWAA board member Mame Reiley to a job created specifically for her at an annual salary of $180,000 without proper vetting or board approval.

“My judgement was not good in terms of the hiring of that person,” said Potter, who said the creation of the job was necessary to meet the challenges created by rising costs at Dulles International.

Following these admissions Edwards asked Curto if he belonged in his leadership position.

“I would hope so,” Curto responded. “I think the body of the report, most of the findings and conclusions of the inspector general's report occurred prior to my time on the board and certainly prior to my tenure as chair.”

When reached to comment on this story, Curto provided a statement.

MWAA’s "leadership continues to work diligently to address the issues and concerns reported on over the past year. We have made significant progress and believe the organization is moving expeditiously in the right direction."

Rep. Rahall’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Follow @MartinDiCaro on Twitter.

 

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Transportation Nation

D.C. Metro Employees Will Soon Be Able to Anonymously Report Safety Hazards

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

(photo by Susan Sermoneta via flickr)

Metro employees will soon be able to anonymously report "close calls" and other safety hazards.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) is working with the federal government to set up  a hotline. It's one of the recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board after a deadly 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people and injured 80 others. That crash was the deadliest episode in Metro history, and ensuing investigation uncovered rampant safety problems at the transit agency.

WMATA is working with the rail worker's union to establish the confidential “close call” reporting system. The goal is to catch potential safety hazards that would otherwise go undetected by Metro’s usual safety reporting systems. Metro employees would be able to report problems without fear of retribution.

“This is a partnership with our union, Local 689 Amalgamated Transit Union, and we are working out a memorandum of understanding with the union to determine the parameters of the program,” said Andrea Burnside, Metro’s chief performance officer. “It is very important to have it confidential because employees will not be willing to participate in the program.”

Exactly what would constitute a “close call” is being hammered out in negotiations with the union, Burnside said.

Improving safety -- and convincing the public their safety on the rail lines is being taken seriously -- ranks as a Metro priority since the Red Line crash. WMATA approached the U.S. Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics for help in creating the reporting program.

"Systems that allow confidential reporting of safety violations are an important part of creating a safety culture in an organization," said DOT spokesman Justin Nisly in an email to Transportation Nation. "The Bureau of Transportation Statistics currently operates a similar safety reporting system for rail that analyzes safety issues to identify trends, new sources of risk, and helps develop preventive safety actions to address them.  Because of that expertise, WMATA approached the BTS to help set up their close call reporting program."

New Jersey Transit was the first passenger rail system in the country to establish a confidential reporting system, back in 2009.

“We are getting a positive response,” said New Jersey Transit spokeswoman Nancy Snyder, who said their program is creating a culture where employees are more apt to report problems from the serious to the more routine. “When they see some infrastructure issues they report it to us. They don t have to worry about any type of reprimand,” Snyder said. “Rail yard efficiencies have improved. We‘re getting improved safety in and around our yards as well as operational efficiencies during our morning rush hours and afternoon rush hours.”

Based on New Jersey Transit's program, the U.S. DOT estimates it may receive 400 close call reports each year in D.C. But Burnside cautions that Metro's system is different than New Jersey's, and the definition of what would constitute a "close call" on Metro rail has yet to be determined.

A potential start date for Metro's program has not been established.  The "close call" program is part of Metro's long-range strategic plan.

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Transportation Nation

YEAR IN REVIEW Washington, D.C: Silver Lines, Express Lanes, Gentrification, and Scandal

Monday, December 31, 2012

(photo by Wally G)

The Washington D.C. metropolitan region saw major developments in transportation that included progress toward completing the largest public rail project in the country, the opening of a new highway on the Beltway, and an update on D.C.’s coming streetcar system. 2012 also raised questions critical to the region’s economic future.  In a region plagued by some of the worst highway traffic congestion in the nation and a public rail system crowded to capacity, how can transportation planners and real estate developers maximize the region’s economic potential in a climate of finite funding for major projects.

1) The Silver Line

When the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors gave final approval to the county’s involvement in the $5.5 billion project that will connect D.C. to Dulles International Airport, lawmakers removed the last major obstacle to completing the Metro rail line by 2018.  Outstanding issues remain, however.  The most controversial issue is the Silver Line’s financing plan, overseen by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.  Without further federal or Virginia state funding, motorists on the Dulles Toll Road will cover half the Silver Line’s costs.

2) I-495 Express Lanes

A new highway is big news in this region. After six years of construction, high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes opened on Nov. 17 on the 495 Beltway between the Dulles Toll Road and the I-95 interchange in Fairfax County.  Drivers using the HOT lanes may get a faster ride, but the project raised questions about the wisdom of highway expansion as a method of solving congestion as well as the pitfalls of funding megaprojects: without the public-private partnership between Virginia and the international road building company Transurban, the road would not be built.  Virginia gets a $2 billion road, and Transurban gets the toll revenues for 75 years.

3) Transit and Gentrification

Washington, D.C. is one of the fastest gentrifying cities in the United States.  While rising property values, economic development, and a growing number of residents living a car-free existence are transforming the District for the better, gentrification has its costs.

4) The Uber Battle for the Ages

After months of contention, the D.C. Council finally approved legislation legalizing the popular sedan car service Uber.  This battle was strange -- and it got personal. Legislators and regulators seemed to tie themselves in knots figuring out to handle the unregulated Uber while the district’s own taxicab industry struggled to modernize.  In the end Uber won.  And so did smartphone-using, taxicab-hailing residents of D.C.

5) MWAA’s woes

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates two major airports, rarely caught the public’s attention.  But after the authority took control of the Silver Line, however, the public’s attention intensified – and not for good reasons.  Audits by the U.S. Department of Transportation and news reports unearthed a litany of shady contracting, hiring, and travel policies and practices.  Critics have relentlessly pressed for changes to the plan to raise tolls significantly to pay for the Silver Line. MWAA is making changes but has not yet recovered the public’s trust.

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Transportation Nation

Audit Exposes Litany of Shady Dealings by Agency Running D.C. Area Airports

Friday, November 02, 2012

Accepting two tickets to the Super Bowl.  Hiring relatives. Awarding no-bid contracts worth millions.

The agency that operates Dulles International and Reagan National Airports and the $6 billion Silver Line rail project engaged in unethical hiring and questionable contracting practices and its officials accepted lavish gifts in violation of the agency's own policies – all enabled by a “culture of favoritism” and lacking internal checks – according to an audit released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general.

The audit detailed questionable dealings at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority from January 2009 to June 2011. During that period, MWAA awarded 190 contracts that exceeded $200,000 but only 36 percent were awarded with full and open competition, the audit said. These contract awards failed to comply with MWAA’s own contracting manual and were inconsistent with the intent of the Airports Act of 1986, the audit said.

MWAA’s hiring practices were also criticized. “In some cases, senior officials abused MWAA’s student program to hire employees who were not students, using personnel documentation that falsely showed student status. MWAA’s lack of oversight also resulted in employees with known criminal convictions working at the Authority in sensitive and management positions for more than a year,” the audit said.

While the audit did not name names, it named positions. For instance, MWAA’s Vice President for Human Resources hired two relatives to work at the agency and then denied it. The vice president, Arl Williams, resigned in advance of the audit’s release.

While Williams’ individual behavior was troublesome, the problems at MWAA also resulted in structural deficiencies.

"According to MWAA’s ethics code, MWAA employees may not hire, supervise, or work with family members. However, MWAA lacks controls to detect and prevent these prohibited relationships… which makes it difficult to determine whether the relationship would constitute nepotism…” the audit said.

MWAA’s vice president for information and telecommunications, George Ellis, received two tickets to the 2009 Super Bowl among other expensive gifts from a contractor in clear violation of established MWAA policy. Ellis was fired in the spring.

In another case mentioned by auditors, a former board member, Mame Reilly, was hired by MWAA CEO Jack Potter to fill a vaguely defined position for an annual salary of $180,000.  Reilly stepped down after a public outcry but was paid a year’s severance. Neither Reilly nor Potter was mentioned by name. None of the contractors who received lucrative no-bid contracts was named, either.

The 51-page report is loaded with examples of contracting practices that, while not explicitly illegal, raise serious questions about decision making at the powerful agency.  One unnamed former board member received 16 no-bid contracts. The MWAA board of directors was not consulted about any no-bid contracts that totaled $6 million dollars.

The DOT auditors closed their report by issuing twelve recommendations while acknowledging that MWAA has already taken steps to overhaul its policies and put in place internal checks.

At a press conference Thursday afternoon, Potter and MWAA board chairman Michael Curto addressed the audit’s findings, promising to work to regain the public’s trust while defending their record in handling the 23-mile Silver Line project.

“We are gratified that the final report acknowledges the actions we have taken since the May Interim Report, as well as our ongoing initiatives, to bring greater transparency and accountability, efficiency, and integrity to our operations and governance,” Curto said.

“We are extremely transparent,” said Potter, referring to the rail project. “There is definitely a firewall between the toll road and rail project and the authority.”

“There is work to be done,” added Potter. “I see it as my job that we restore the trust in this institution through very solid policies.  I’ll be embarrassed if two years from now these same things are a problem.”

 

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Transportation Nation

MWAA Board Member Rips Secretary LaHood and Silver Line Funding

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Work on the first phase of the Silver Line rail to Dulles Airport is ongoing, but officials are still fighting over funding for Phase 2.  (Photo by Sean Marshall via flickr)

An outgoing member of the agency running the Silver Line rail project is accusing U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood of “coercive” and “heavy-handed” oversight that has created a distraction from finding funding for the second phase of the rail link to Dulles Airport.

In a letter sent to LaHood’s office on Tuesday, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) board member Robert Brown, whose tenure on the board of directors is expected to end this month, says the transportation secretary has taken unprecedented steps of questionable legality to monitor the airports authority following reports of profligate spending and unethical practices.

In August, Secretary LaHood sent MWAA a letter of his own, signed by the governors of Virginia and Maryland and D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, expressing “outrage” at “ongoing reports describing questionable dealings including the award of numerous lucrative no-bid contracts to former Board members.”

“I haven’t disputed that there have been some questionable governance practices at the airports authority. I think those by and large have been addressed and corrections put in place,” said Brown in an interview with Transportation Nation.

In defending MWAA’s record, Brown is attempting to draw attention to projected toll rate increases on the Dulles Toll Road that would pay for 75 percent of Phase 2’s costs. More federal and Virginia state funding would lower the projections, he said.

“There is no other transportation project of this scale anywhere in the country where the local community bears such an inordinate share of the total project cost,” he said.

There is currently no federal funding for Phase 2 of the Silver Line, which has an estimated cost of roughly $3 billion. The state of Virginia has provided $150 million, a sum Brown describes as “paltry.”

“That is not the kind of contribution Virginia is making to any of the other transportation projects in the state. It is funding 20 to 25 percent of project costs on three other megaprojects in Virginia and it is funding 6 percent of the cost of this project,” Brown said.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation said the agency received Brown’s letter but had not had time to review it.

MWAA had come under intense scrutiny for months leading up to LaHood’s critical letter. The overseas travel expenses incurred by some MWAA board members, especially Dennis Martire, led to charges of profligacy. Martire recently settled a legal battle with the administration of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, who tried to remove him from the board of directors.  Martire agreed to resign his post this month.

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Transportation Nation

Bike Share to the Alamo, Santa Claus Bike/Ped Trail, and Other Transit $$

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Alamo (image courtesy of San Antonio Missions National Historic Park)

Seems to be grant day for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The feds are handing out $40.8 million for 58 projects giving better transit access to national parks.

Among the grantees are the City of San Antonio, which gets $324,000 to expand bike share to connect the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park to the Alamo.

There's also $340,000 to the town of Santa Claus, Indiana, to design a bike and pedestrian trail connecting the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, local schools, and the town of Santa Claus.

The grants are part of the Paul S. Sarbanes Transit in Parks program, which is described in a press release as "administered by the FTA in partnership with the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service, the program funds capital and planning expenses for alternative transportation systems, such as shuttle buses and bicycle trails, in national parks and public lands. The goals of the program are to conserve natural, historical and cultural resources, and reduce congestion and pollution."

For a full list of grantees, including Marin County, New York City, and Alaska, click here.

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Transportation Nation

New Rules Protecting U.S. Airline Passengers Start Today

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Airplanes wait to take off fro JFK Airport (photo by ATIS547 via Flickr)

(New York, NY - WNYC) The U.S. Department of Transportation's latest set of "flier protection" rules go into effect today.

The department can now impose large fines on international flights that wait on the tarmac more than four hours. Airlines will also have to clearly display fees charged on everything from checking a bag to reserving a seat to buying food. And a passenger can expect higher compensation from an airline that loses his luggage or involuntarily bumps her from a flight.

New York's airports, in particular, played a dubious role as a catalyst to the crack-down on long delays before take-off. In 2007, 154 flights were stuck on a runway at JFK Airport for more than three hours. Two-thirds of all long waits in the country happened at one of the metropolitan area's three major airports.

Then, in 2010, the U.S. DOT began fining domestic airlines for those delays and the numbers plummeted. Now the department will do the same for international flights.

Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, applauded the change. He also agreed with airlines being forced to clearly display all their charges to online ticket buyers. His is one of several consumer groups that say buying a ticket online means digging deep into an airline's website to understand what fees it charges.

"They've had their fees buried on screen four, five and six, or just before you get ready to take your credit card out," Mitchell said.

Steve Lott, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association (an airline trade association), said airlines strive to communicate clearly with passengers. "Airlines already have made many service improvements and many of the regulations going into affect formalize procedures already in place," Lott said.

In January, airlines will face even more rules, including notifying passengers at the boarding gate if their flight is delayed or cancelled.

To listen to this story, go to Marketplace.

 

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Transportation Nation

Schumer: Use ARC Tunnel $ To Finish Digging Rail Tunnel Under East River

Monday, June 20, 2011

East Side Access would bring Long Island Railroad to Grand Central Station through a tunnel under the East River at 63rd Street and then beneath Park Avenue.

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer says New Jersey's transportation loss should be Long Island's gain.

The Senator is supporting a $2.2 billion low-interest loan from the federal government to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The money was originally earmarked for a commuter rail tunnel under the Hudson River that Governor Chris Christie killed in October. Schumer says it should now go to finishing East Side Access, a project connecting Long Island Railroad to Grand Central Station through tunnels beneath the East River. Long Island Railroad is the nation's largest commuter line.

East Side Access is supposed to be done by 2016, but is only funded through the end of the year. The project is designed to speed up trips for about 160,000 riders from Long Island to Manhattan's East Side by as much as 30 to 40 minutes.

More than $5 billion in state and federal funds have already been spent on the new rail connection, one of the largest infrastructure projects in the U.S. But East Side Access is still facing a $2.2 billion shortfall.

The MTA applied for the loan in late April to the Federal Railroad Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Spokesman Aaron Donovan said the authority is "in discussions with the U.S. DOT as part of the application process but we don't have an estimate on when we'll hear back."

U.S. DOT spokeswoman Olivia Alair said "We do not have comment on this today."

Most Long Island Railroad trains cross under Manhattan to arrive at Penn Station on the West Side, adding to congestion at that station and forcing commuters with jobs on the East Side to double back by bus or subway. Schumer said eliminating that bottleneck and adding flexibility to the system will "boost New York as the economic engine of the region."

 

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Transportation Nation

Fed Regulator Tells Congress She Needs More Authority To Crack Down On Unsafe Buses

Monday, June 13, 2011

(photo by Naomi A. / Flickr creative commons)

(New York, NY - WNYC) Federal legislators and regulators talked tough today at a Congressional hearing on strengthening bus safety. Anne S. Ferro, Administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, took the occasion to make a pitch for greater power to crack down on the fast-expanding long distance bus industry. But first, she delivered some chilling stats related to the recent spate of bus crashes.

"This year has been the worst period in recent history for motorcoach safety with six crashes resulting in 25 deaths and numerous injuries," she said.

Her statement came after a weekend during which her agency, which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, declared three bus companies "imminent safety hazards" and shut them down.

One of those companies, Haines Tour in Michigan, was caught carrying passengers in cargo holds at the bottom of their buses. Another, United Tours in North Carolina, was using unqualified drivers.

New enforcement measures proposed by Ferro at the hearing included inspecting every long distance bus at least once a year, doing surprise safety stops while buses are en route and raising the fee for a company to obtain an operating license from DOT. Right now it's 300 hundred dollars -- 50 dollars 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.

Representatives from the long distance bus companies who participated in the hearing gave their wary consent to the proposals. "I can support it if it's reasonable," said Mr. Victor S. Parra, president of the trade group United Motorcoach Association. "You have to remember that these companies create jobs and are good for the economy. You don't want to over-regulate them."

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Transportation Nation

US DOT Accuses Georgia Bus Company Of 'Reincarnation,' Orders It Off The Road

Thursday, June 09, 2011

(New York, NY - WNYC) The U.S. Department of Transportation says it has caught a long-distance bus company operating illegally after being shut down for safety violations. Regulators say Georgia-based JCT Motor Coach, previously taken out of service after two egregiously failed inspections, has resumed operation as JT's Travel & Charter.

The department declared the carrier "an imminent hazard to public safety" and ordered it to immediately cease its transportation services.

The practice is known in the industry as "reincarnation." A company can re-emerge from regulatory extinction simply by changing its name and address, repainting its fleet and hitting the street again.

U.S. DOT announced last week that it was investigating the Sky Express Bus Company for possibly reincarnating as a carrier called 108 Bus, even though regulators put it out of service on May 31, the day one of its buses crashed on I-95 in Virginia, killing four people and injuring more than 50 others.  A spokesperson for Sky Express denied that it had taken a different name and continued to operate.

JCT Motorcoach had an exceptionally bad safety record, according to U.S. DOT, which listed some of the company's violations: "falsifying vehicle maintenance records, failing to ensure its vehicles were regularly inspected, repaired and maintained, using drivers with positive drug and alcohol testing results, using medically unqualified drivers and failing to comply with federal hours-of-service requirements for drivers."

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, a department of U.S. DOT, is charged with enforcing bus safety. An administration official said inspectors pulled over a JCT Motorcoach bus last year and found so many maintenance problems that inspectors followed up with a visit to the business. That second inspection revealed a host of other problems. The carrier was then placed out of service.

A call to JCT Motorcoach late Thursday was answered by a woman who gave her name as Ala. She said she didn't work for the company "but I spend a lot of time around it." Asked about the U.S. DOT charges against JCT Motorcoach, she said, "Nobody's doing anything illegal."

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Transportation Nation

Bus Company In Deadly Crash May Still Be Operating

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Sign in Sky Express Bus Company Office in Manhattan's Chinatown. (Photo by: Kathleen Horan)

(New York -- WNYC) The U.S. Department of Transportation has ordered the Sky Express Bus Company to "cease and desist" from continuing to run its business under another name in defiance of a government-ordered shutdown last week. The department is also seeking the records of three websites that have sold tickets for Sky Express in the past, and may have continued to do so after the company "reincarnated" by painting its buses another color and adopting other names, including 108 Bus and I-95 Coach.

On Tuesday, a Sky Express Bus swerved and flipped off I-95 near Richmond, VA, killing four women and injuring 53 others. Federal regulators put the company out of service later the same day--a move the U.S. DOT could've made three days earlier if it hadn't granted the company an extra ten days to appeal a poor safety rating.

But Sky Express apparently kept going under different guises, even after the deadly crash and an order from the feds to stop operations. Regulators appear to believe that the company changed its name to 108 Bus and I-95 Coach--and possibly others--to sell tickets as usual through travel sites like GoToBus.com, TakeTours.com and 2001Bus.com. The U.S. DOT has subpoenaed records from each of those websites about their bus company clients.

UPDATE:Jimmy Chen founder and owner of Ivy Media, which runs both GoToBus.com and TakeTours, but not 2001Bus, said "TakeTours.com has never sold any Sky Express bus tickets." And that no company he owns has sold any tickets for Sky Express since May 31.

He also said that no new bus company has signed up with his sites that run on the same routes as Sky Express did. The only other company that does, is I95Coach, which has been around for "several months." As for the idea that I95Coach might be the same as Sky Express, Chen finds that far fetched because he's witnessed the two companies get in a price war that dropped some long distance fares to half what they are back up to now. "It's a no brainer, I don't have to check the ownership... That wouldn't happen if they were the same company," he says.

Circumstantially at least, Sky Express Bus and I-95 Coach seem quite similar. For example, the Ticket Policy page for Sky Express is essentially the same as that of the Ticket Policy page for I-95 Coach. The two companies have a roster of routes that is nearly identical and their pick up and drop-off spots in Manhattan's Chinatown are a short block away from each other.

I-95 Coach is presumably a new company because no record of it could be found in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration database.

Such apparent acts of business "reincarnation" are difficult to track, and have long been recognized as a problem in the discount bus industry, including a report from the GAO in 2009. The U.S. DOT said the information that led to Friday's subpoena came from its own investigation. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the legal move showed his seriousness about cracking down on the industry. “We are relentlessly targeting unsafe and illegal bus companies,” he said.

Calls to the Sky Express office in New York on Sunday were not answered. [UPDATE 6/6/2011: a lawyer retained by the company would not comment on the record]

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Transportation Nation

Regulators Put Off Shutting Down Bus Company Involved In Fatal Crash

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Sky Express Bus Company sign at its office in Manhattan's Chinatown. (Photo by: Kathleen Horan/WNYC)

(New York, NY - WNYC) The long distance bus company involved in a fatal crash in Virginia on Tuesday could've been put out of service three days earlier. The company, Sky Express, remained on the road after federal regulators gave it extra time to appeal a poor safety rating.

Over the past two years, the Sky Express Bus Company racked up dozens of safety violations, some for drivers who worked too many hours or used drugs or alcohol on the job.

On April 12, the U.S. Department of Transportation rated the company "unsatisfactory." That was enough to shut it down.

Sky Express appealed its rating to the department. Soon after, DOT issued an "initial denial"--a strong indication that the appeal would be rejected. Sky Express should've been out of options, and out of business, last Saturday--three days before a company driver on his way from Raleigh to New York fell asleep at the wheel and flipped his bus on a highway, killing four people and injuring more than 50 others.

Instead DOT extended Sky Express's appeal by ten days, allowing it carry on with business as usual. On Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he would direct the department to end its practice of extending appeals for operators found to be unsafe.

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Transportation Nation

Operator In Latest Fatal Tour Bus Crash Had Poor Safety Record

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Storefront sign in Manhattan's Chinatown announces shut-down of the Sky Express Bus Company. (Photo by: Kathleen Horan / WNYC)

(New York, NY - WNYC) The federal government has indefinitely shut down Sky Express, the company involved in Tuesday's fatal crash of a bus on the Raleigh to New York run. The Charlotte-based operator had a poor safety record even before the accident, which has left legislators and others wondering why the U.S. Department of Transportation had given the company its highest safety rating.

Department records show the Sky Express Bus Company had four crashes in the past two years, with two injuries, and that drivers received forty-six violations related to driver fatigue and falsifying driving records. The company was also in the bottom one percent of carriers for sending out drivers unfit to operate a bus because of health concerns or a lack of training or experience.

But until Tuesday, the DOT gave the bus company a “satisfactory” safety record, its highest rating.

Police say the driver in the early morning bus crash, a Queens resident named Kin Yiu Cheng, may have fallen asleep at the wheel. The Sky Express bus swerved off northbound Interstate 95 near Fredericksburg, VA, hit an embankment and flipped.

The crash killed four passengers and left the driver slightly hurt. Fifty-four people were taken to area hospitals and treated for minor to severe injuries. It was the third deadly accident involving a Chinatown bus in as many months

Virginia police arrested Yiu Cheng for reckless driving.

New York State lawmakers are once again calling for more regulation of so-called Chinatown buses following the fatal crash. Legislation in Albany would allow New York City officials to keep better track of long distance bus operators through permits and more detailed record-keeping.

At a press conference outside a Sky Express office in Manhattan's Chinatown, NY State Senator Daniel Squadron said more oversight of the long distance bus industry was needed. "Enough is enough," he said. "We've had too many tragedies, we have too little regulation we have one solution, what we can do on the state and the city level."

The bill has passed the New York State Assembly but not the Senate.

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