In one Queens neighborhood, there's warfare over fares -- bus fares. Not due to the fare being too high, but quite the contrary. The fare is only $1.00, and it's causing tensions to rise between two groups of drivers, while leaving thousands of passengers in a danger zone in the middle.
A visit to the corner of Main Street and 41st Avenue in Flushing, Queens shows dozens of people, one by one, handing one-dollar bills to two women on the sidewalk. The women are faretakers for New Oriental Tour, Incorporated, and their receiving money and giving change on the sidewalk without a proper permit is illegal. Where each dollar is being used for, however, is a much bigger problem.
"This kind of mentality," Flushing resident Diane Gallagher told PIX11 News, "should be illegal!" She is one of thousands of passengers who regularly ride in 19-seat minibuses that shuttle local residents among locations in Flushing, Chinatown in Manhattan, and Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and Elmhurst Queens.
Those minibuses, which have operated legally for years, now face competition whose legal status is questionable at best, and in full non-compliance most likely. Large, 59-passenger buses have begun picking up and discharging riders on Main Street in the last two weeks, and they are undercutting longstanding transportation providers in the area.
For years, the minibuses have taken on and dropped off passengers in designated loading zones just off Main Street, but the newly-arrived large buses operate in an no-standing zone on Main Street, where they're more visible, and less costly to ride.
"Oh my God," was the reaction that local city councilmember Peter Koo told PIX11 News he had when the bigger buses arrived late last month. "I thought Main Street's already too crowded for buses to sit and idle for 15 minutes at a time." The councilmember has been working ever since on trying to find a solution that won't upset a longstanding transportation alternative for local residents.
"Everything's filthy, it's dirty," one regular minibus passenger who did not want to give his name said in describing the minibus system, "But the majority of people take it because the amount that you're paying is the same, but you're saving in time [compared to the train]."
He explained how the minibuses have thrived for years because they have traditionally charged the same fare as a single ride subway Metrocard in order to move passengers between locations in a shorter amount of time than the subway.
Most minibuses have charged around $2.50 for a ride from Flushing to Lower Manhattan. That changed when the larger buses showed up, slashing the price to $1.00. The move spawned a fare war, and now the minibuses also charge $1.00 each, which is not enough for most of the minibus operators to break even. Gallagher, one of their loyal customers, suspects something sinister.
"Once they drive [the minibuses] out of business, they will drive the price up, having driven out their competitor," Gallagher said.
The large buses had been shuttles from Flushing to Atlantic City casinos, but federal inspectors shut them down in late May, citing interstate safety and other code violations. So now, those former casino shuttles are carrying out intra-city transit, and in the process are snubbing their noses at local laws.
The owner of the company that owns the large $1.00 buses is Tony Luo, and his office is on 41st Avenue, directly across the street from the minibus loading zone. PIX11 News went to his street level office, which is covered in thick, bulletproof glass. A woman in the office said that Luo was not there, and promised to pass on contact information to him from PIX11 News.
The local councilmember's office said that Luo, an established charter bus owner, had been out of contact ever since his $1.00 buses began showing up. Even though he has not worked with the councilmember or with police, who have ticketed Luo's buses many times for illegal parking and failure by drivers to produce proper identification, the city councilmember vows action against Luo's company, whether or not its owner is cooperative.
"The police and other agencies promised me they will resolve this problem very soon," Councilmember Koo told PIX11 News.
Backing that up was a statement issued to PIX11 News Friday afternoon from the city's department of transportation. "City agencies are initiating an investigation of the situation," DOT spokesperson Nicholas Mosquera said in the statement, "and will pursue relevant legal or regulatory channels, including the possibility of state or federal enforcement."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times