July 13, 2016
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – A group of council members hoping to “bring the hammer down” on rouge commuter van drivers, while also strengthening legitimate vehicles servicing underserved communities through NYC, is betting that a package of four new bills is just what the industry needs.
“We’re doing two things,” Council Member Jumaane Williams [D-45th District] said during a City Hall rally for the bills on Tuesday. “Providing a route for people who want to do this legitimately — and we’re stepping up enforcement for people who choose not to go that route.”
Private commuter van lines — also euphemistically known as “dollar vans” — have been cruising the city streets for decades now, offering rapid transportation options to commuters who would otherwise be hard-pressed to find a reliable ride.
For just as long, however, unlicensed “dollar vans” have been a constant source of frustration for both law enforcement and the communities subjected to the often cowboy ways of illegal drivers.
One half of this latest reform package seeks to both eliminate the need for legitimate commuter vans to renew their licenses every six years, and place a moratorium on new licenses while a safety study is conducted. The other half of the package, meanwhile, calls for increasing penalties for major offenses like fleeing TLC enforcement agents and police.
Three of the four bills have already had hearings, and Council Member Williams said he expects all four bills to be approved before the summer is out.
“We’ve gotten together on what we think in responsible legislation that will allow communities to be served in a responsible way,” Council Member I. Daneek Miller added.
Although the City of New York has had a contentious relationship with private commuter van lines in the past, it has also leaned on them in times of crisis to help keep a paralyzed metropolis moving.
“We were the unsung heroes of 9/11, transporting first responders to Ground Zero,” said Desmond West, a commuter van driver for the last 27 years. “We have never gotten our fair share of recognition.”
Major commuter van hubs located in so-called “transportation deserts” include Chinatown, Eastern Queens, Flatbush Brooklyn and Edenwald, Bronx.
“Even though we are a major transportation hub, we still need commuter vans,” Council Member Peter Koo [D-20th District] said. “A lot of times, the 7 train is over capacity or has signal problems and elderly people can’t stand too long, so they take the commuter vans.”
The Commuter Van Association of New York is made up of some 30 different companies. Its leader, Hector Ricketts, said that the private commuter van industry has consistently come to the aid of the city in times of crisis, only to be banished once more to the “underground economy” after those crises have passed.
“This legislation will reform in a dramatic way the way commuter vans operate in this city,” Ricketts said. “Rogue vans threaten the success of [Mayor de Blasio’s] Vision Zero [traffic safety plan], and ruins of the economy of a group of 460 licensed commuter van operators who built an industry; put kids through college and paid for homes in their neighborhoods.”
Unlike Black Car, livery and limousine industries, commuter van companies need approval from two separate city agencies in order to operate legally.
Thelma Williams, a commuter van operator from Queens since 1981, called for an end to the reauthorization requirement currently placed on “dollar vans.”
“When the city needs us we are there for the city,” Williams said. “We are immigrants. We vote and pay taxes. I think we are doing a pretty good job out there.”