State inspection sweeps upset northern N.J. jitney drivers

by The Associated Press

Another large inspection sweep this week of the jitney buses that carry passengers between New York City and northern New Jersey has some drivers crying foul.

State officials insist the random inspections are a matter of safety, but several drivers are questioning why they are routinely forced to pay municipal tow drivers $700 to $1,000 per vehicle, sometimes to go just a few blocks to an impound lot.

“We are not opposed to them checking our buses,” Ever Escobar, owner of the Weehawken-based jitney service Vanessa Express, said in Spanish. “All we ask is they go to our garages and inspect them, and not so that we have to force all our passengers off the buses. It’s dishonorable, an embarrassment, and we are proud of our businesses.”

Hudson County Prosecutor Edward DeFazio said his office works with local authorities and state transportation officials to conduct the surprise inspections periodically.

“Quite frankly, there hasn’t been the level of compliance that we believe is necessary to ensure the public safety,” DeFazio said of the jitney buses.

DeFazio said Tuesday’s action in West New York pulled over 27 commuter vans, 15 of which had to be towed due to violations ranging from fuel leaks to missing fire extinguishers. He said summonses also were issued to drivers for expired or missing documents.

Jose Morillo, the president of a group of 250 drivers called the “Chauffeurs of Bergenline,” said he welcomed the surprise inspections, but that there had to be a more respectful and efficient way to do them.

“They act like they’re looking for murderers or delinquents,” Morillo said in Spanish, describing how police often pull buses over and order passengers out as though they are conducting a raid.

“It’s very ugly the way it’s done; it scares passengers, and it’s just not necessary,” he said.

Morillo said drivers were becoming very angry about the towing costs, and were trying to get a petition together.

“All our companies have tow trucks; they don’t allow us to use our trucks,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just a few blocks, and you have to pay $800 for 10 blocks. I think something smells bad about that, you know. They think Spanish people are dumb and disunited and that gives them license to discriminate and treat us this way.”

DeFazio said there are no double-standards for inspections, and discrimination plays no part in what is strictly a safety issue.

“We believe the commuter vans perform a valuable service to the community,” DeFazio said. “We have no problem with them operating, but they have to operate pursuant to the law.”

Michael Horan, a spokesman for the state’s Motor Vehicle Commission, said NJ Transit buses are inspected in their depots, while roadside inspections are conducted on the more than 6,000 jitney buses licensed by the state.

“With the roadside inspections you’re catching illegal vehicles this way,” Horan said. “Many times there’s vehicles on the road that don’t belong on the road, they’re driving illegally, and that’s the way to catch them.”

Horan said his department conducts two to three surprise inspections each month, and typically finds at least 40 percent of the jitney buses have violations.

“Our number one concern is safety,” he said.

The use of minibuses, or passenger jitneys — which usually have about 25 seats and charge about $4 one-way from Paterson to midtown Manhattan — started decades ago to fill a void in areas of the state not serviced by larger carriers.

Their popularity — and numbers — have exploded in recent years as cash-strapped commuters search for low-cost transportation alternatives.

Critics complain the buses often create gridlock along already congested corridors, make quick stops without signaling and sometimes flout traffic laws, are unlicensed or have unlicensed drivers.

Norberto Curitomai, who built a small Paterson-based jitney service into one of North Jersey’s largest private transportation companies — it now has its own gate at Manhattan’s Port Authority bus terminal — acknowledges that the increasing demand for service has drawn some unlicensed or poorly run competitors into the fray. But he says no one is more concerned about illegal operators than legitimate jitney companies.

Curitomai said he supports random inspections but abhors they way they are currently conducted.

“They don’t do this with NJ Transit, only with our companies,” he said. “If those are the rules, why don’t they apply to everybody?”