C.O.M.E.T. (Citizens of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together) President Roe Daraio never paid any attention to the commuter vans that operate throughout Queens until several members of her civic group made complaints about double-parked vans on residential streets in Maspeth and passengers that littered while they waited to be picked up. Suddenly, she started noticing the vans everywhere.
She decided to look into the commuter van routes, but was unable to find that information, so she made a FOIL (Freedom Of Information Law) request from the city. She received a packet of maps clearly indicating the geographic zone in which each van authority is allowed to operate. Information for Transxpress and J&HE, the van authorities that Daraio has received the most complaints about, was not included.
However, Daraio maintains that the commuter van issue never went before Community Board 5, a detail confirmed by CB5 District Manager Gary Giordano, who has held the post for 20 years.
According to Giordano, TLC-regulated vehicles are required to come before the board with base station applications and renewals, but he said that the protocol for commuter vans is unclear as the board has never been presented with an application or renewal for commuter van authorities.
Daraio said, “The lack of enforcement by TLC in our area is basically giving the green light to commuter van companies to operate outside of their authorized zones.”
A QUEENS civic association is offering a fresh idea to help the cash-strapped MTA - force more locals to ride the bus.
Commuter vans that illegally operate along bus routes in Maspeth have long poached fares from the struggling Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said Roe Daraio, president of Citizens of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together.
Stricter enforcement of the gypsy van drivers, who block driveways and intersections to pick up passengers for about $2 a pop, could help the city generate more money in fines and prompt more people to pay for a MetroCard, Daraio said.
"These people will pay their own salaries," Daraio said of getting more Taxi & Limousine Commission agents to patrol the local bus routes.
"The lack of enforcement by TLC in our area is basically giving the green light to commuter van companies to operate outside their authorized zones," Daraio said.
C.O.M.E.T. President Roe Daraio and members of the group are livid over the inaction of the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) to crack down on the unauthorized commuter van activity in Maspeth, South Elmhurst and Woodside. Daraio stated, “The lack of enforcement by TLC in our area is basically giving the green light to commuter van companies to operate outside of their authorized zones.”
Every day commuter vans prowl residential streets, pick up passengers along bus routes (currently prohibited under TLC regulations) and block intersections and residents’ driveways. According to Daraio, numerous requests to the agency to enforce their regulations have fallen upon deaf ears. She said the local precincts are sympathetic to the problem but are not trained to write many of the summonses necessary to curtail the activity. Since crime is up and the officers are needed for patrol, it is unlikely that they will be trained in the near future. What many folks find interesting is that the City has no problem summonsing a motorist who is parked at an expired parking meter, is double-parked or is dropping someone off at a bus stop, but does no enforcement of commuter van companies blatantly disobeying regulations. A crackdown would likely collect tens of thousands of dollars in revenue that the City could use during this budget crisis, not to mention improve the quality of life of the people living in neighborhoods plagued by illegally operating commuter vans.
In April 2009, C.O.M.E.T. met with TLC Commissioner Matthew Daus to discuss the lack of enforcement of commuter van regulations. Issues brought up included: companies discriminating as to whom is picked up, the lack of information about routes and destinations, why a particular route was approved or even phone numbers to contact companies to schedule rides. The meeting resulted in a few summonses being written but with no follow up. To obtain the route information, C.O.M.E.T. was told they needed to make a FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) request, and at the time of the meeting TLC claimed they didn’t even know where the authorized routes were in the area. Other complaints about the commuter vans - including reporting a licensed van that did not have any name or markings on it - went unaddressed and the activity continues today.
After FOILing the commuter van routes, C.O.M.E.T. made a startling discovery: only one commuter van company is authorized in the Community Board 4 area and that route does not encompass Elmhurst south of Queens Boulevard and does not extend into Woodside or Maspeth. That means every single commuter van operating in these areas is doing so illegally.
Daraio said, “Apparently rules were not made for everyone and the City is just allowing these companies to get away with their illegal practices with no enforcement. Instead of collecting revenue by summonsing rogue companies, it’s probably easier to just raise residents’ taxes.”
Folks continue to see commuter vans driving in the Maspeth/Woodside area, communities where they are not authorized to pick up or drop off. People say the vans are pulling into private driveways, backing out of side streets, and blocking traffic while they pick up or discharge passengers. Elmhurst residents experience similar problems to a more extensive degree because the commuter vans are authorized to operate there.
To complicate things, we have found out some the commuter vans that you have been seeing picking up and discharging people are not considered commuter vans. We have been told that any commuter van with “BA” at the end of their license plate number is considered a bus. At this point we assume the vans with “LA” at the end of their license plate are considered commuter vans. NYC Department of Transportation is in charge of the “BA” license plates while NYC Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC) is in charge of the “LA” license plates. If you think that is complicated, we are now seeing commuter vans with a “T” at the beginning of their license plate number and a “C” at the end. This is now being investigated and we are curious as to what the answer will be.
We have been notified that the NYC TLC has undertaken a project to revise its existing rule book. During the first phase of the rules revision project, all of the existing rules will be redrafted, then posted on a chapter-by-chapter basis on the TLC Website for review and discussion by interested members of the public. We are hopeful that we can propose some changes that will be instrumental in resolving the ongoing problems that we have been dealing with.
Dominic Collucio, Special Assistant to the Commissioner has promised to send COMET President Roe Daraio a copy of the commuter van guidelines and NYC DOT guidelines pertaining to the commuter buses. Everyone in COMETland will just have to wait for the next chapter to find out if we will, in fact, unravel the commuter van and commuter bus dilemma/mystery.