Regulators shut down 26 bus operations along I-95

After a yearlong investigation, federal safety regulators have closed 26 bus operations as "imminent hazards," including one that they said operated illegally in Maryland and another that ran 16 daily trips between Baltimore and New York City.

The crackdown along the Interstate 95 corridor is the largest in the history of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, officials said Thursday. It included nine active bus companies, 13 companies that had been ordered out of service but were continuing to operate, one ticket seller, and three companies seeking federal operating authority. More than 30 buses were taken off the road.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the companies "blatantly and repeatedly" violated federal safety laws and continued to do business by creating new identities. The violations included the use of drivers who didn't have valid commercial licenses, were unqualified and worked longer hours than federal regulations allow. In addition, buses had not been regularly inspected and repaired, and companies did not conduct required drug and alcohol testing.

New York-based I-95 Coach Inc. operated a carrier in Maryland under the name Tony Bus Express Line Inc. of Bowie. The carrier had been taken out of service by federal inspectors but continued to run illegally as I-95 Coach Inc., according to the safety administration.

In its order Thursday, the safety administration said that, "individually and cumulatively, these violations and conditions of operation substantially increase the likelihood of serious injury or death to I-95 Coach drivers, passengers and the motoring public."

Another carrier cited, New Century Travel Inc., of Philadelphia, offered nine daily trips from a travel plaza on the O'Donnell Street cutoff to New York's Chinatown, and seven return trips. An affiliate of that company was involved in a deadly New Jersey crash last year.

Maryland State Police, which helped serve the orders on the two companies, said troopers would be watching closely to ensure that the operators don't sneak back on the road as "reconstituted" carriers.

"We'll see them again," said Capt. Bill Dofflemyer, who heads the Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Division. "That's the way we've seen them operate in the past. We see them change names, change bus colors, lease buses, but they're still the same company with the same bad practices."

Phone calls and emails to the three main companies involved in the regulators' action — I-95 Coach, New Century Travel and New York-based Apex Bus Inc. — were unanswered.

Low-cost, intercity bus companies have grown in popularity in the Mid-Atlantic and other areas. Ridership numbers are not kept by the federal government. However, a DePaul University study found that the number of weekday departures increased 7.1 percent from 2010 to 2011; ridership grew an estimated 30 percent during that period.

A National Transportation Safety Board report last year said that from January 2005 to March 2011, curbside carriers were seven times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident than conventional bus companies. The report also said that because curbside buses don't operate from terminals, there are fewer opportunities for drivers to inspect their buses.

Safety administration officials, who have been cracking down on repeat offenders in the trucking industry, said the bus safety initiative is not over. Between 2005 and 2011, the number of inspections of the nation's estimated 4,000 bus companies has more than doubled, from 12,991 to 28,982.

"The same effort will be in effect going forward," said Anne Ferro, who heads the safety administration and used to run the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration. "This is a new day."

In May, the agency and state police departments inspected more than 2,200 buses in Maryland and a dozen other states. The dragnet resulted in 116 drivers and 169 buses being taken out of service. On June 5, federal and local inspectors across the country will conduct a 72-hour truck and bus safety blitz.

This latest push to investigate the network of carriers operating along I-95 follows a series of deadly bus crashes last spring, Ferro said.

On March 12, 2011, a tour bus returning to New York's Chinatown from a Connecticut casino hit a barrier in the Bronx, N.Y., at high speed, rolled onto its side and slammed into a sign pole. The crash killed 15 passengers and seriously injured 17 others.

Days later, a bus operated by a New Century affiliate en route to Philadelphia from Chinatown crashed on the New Jersey Turnpike, killing the driver and a passenger, and injuring 41.

In May 2011, a bus traveling from Greensboro, N.C., to Chinatown drifted off I-95 in Virginia, hit an embankment and overturned. The accident killed four passengers and injured 50 others. The driver admitted to police that he had fallen asleep.

"We will use every bit of our authority to get the bad actors off the road," Ferro said.

She said the safety administration issued a rule Thursday that gives it more authority to stop rogue bus companies from reconstituting themselves or shifting operations to an affiliate. Ferro urged Congress to approve legislation to give the agency more enforcement power and increase the penalty from $2,200 to $25,000 a day for companies that violate regulations.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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