DECEMBER 2002

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In Queens: Another Chapter on Fight Over Dollar Vans
From CaribNews
November 20-26, 2002

By Tony Best

Some call it the case of the rapidly changing fortunes of dollar vans.

Others think it is a matter of how easily people forget.

Less than three months ago, the West Indians who operate the "dollar vans" in Queens were being hailed as saviors.

That was when 1,500 employees of the Queens private bus line walked off the job in a contractual fight over increased wages and better working conditions and left more than 50,000 passengers stranded. The West Indian entrepreneurs moved in and more than fill the void.

"The city has reached out to us on so many occasions," said Hector Ricketts, the Jamaican who is president of the Interborough Alliance for Commuter Transportation, the umbrella organization that represents van owners and drivers.

But after the seven week strike ended in August and the Queens bus drivers ratified a 27-month contract, the West Indians who had rescued the commuters are now being accused of everything from recklessness and operating unsafe vehicles to being lawbreakers.

"When the strike is over we are back to being bandits," was the way Ricketts put it recently.

And the small, private mini-bus owners are feeling it where it hurts the most, in their pocketbooks as they complain about increased summonses issued by police officers.

The troubles can be traced to the transportation workers unions whose members accused the West Indians of being strike breakers and to City Council politicians who, literally and figuratively, want to drive them out of business. In addition, some community groups who between June and August were happy that the dollar vans were around to get them to and from subway stations are up in arms once again, expressing concerns about safety and are lobbying for tight restrictions on the "dollar van" operators.

Small wonder, then, that the Caribbean businessmen are wondering if they aren’t being taken for a ride.

The dispute comes down to a tug-of-war between some powerful entrenched interests fighting over turf.

The strong forces are a mix of union power and elected City Council members on one side and the West Indians on the other. They are fighting over Local Law 115. The battle dates back to the 1980s when Queens was hit with lengthy work stoppage and the vans rode to people’s rescue. After the settlement, the unions aided by some civic groups and City Council members launched a strong lobby to get the "dollar vans" off the street.

The upshot: Local Law 115 which was enacted in 1993, giving the City Council veto power over the ability of the Taxi and Limousine Commission to issue licenses to the dollar vans. The law went a step further and made it illegal for the vans to pick up passengers along bus routes.

It’s a law Ricketts and the van operators have been fighting ever since.

The mini-bus owners, drivers and their legal counsel argue that the law is really an anti-competitive measure that’s really designed to put them out of business. Just as important, they insist, the law has little, if anything to do, with safety or insurance as the unions, civic groups and City Council members claimed.

"The vans are the type of entrepreneurship New York City should be rewarding," said Chip Mellor, head of the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm in Washington that has been representing the private operators in Brooklyn and Queens for many years. "Time and again they have risen to the rescue of New Yorkers who were ill-served or abandoned by the busses."

The recent strike underscored Mellor’s point.

During the walk-out the "dollar vans," which actually charge $1.25 for a trip, say from Rosedale to the Jamaica subway station, instead of $1.50, were given permission to operate freely in order to meet the demands of the traveling public. But once the labor troubles were settled, the restrictions were imposed. Hence, the jump in the number of summonses issued by cops.

Even the Transportation Department admitted recently that the vans have made a substantial and positive difference. "They gained a lot of credibility during the strike, which for whatever reason, they didn’t seem to have," Tom Cocola, a department spokesman, told a city newspaper. "We know what they are trying to do and we’ve tried to think of their needs."

But Ricketts believes credibility is one thing, the application of the law is another. "The law makes what we do look somewhat illegal," he said, "We can’t work with the dignity we deserve with that hanging over our heads."

What has made life difficult for the West Indians is the refusal of the courts to strike down the law. The state’s highest court declined to hear their case. "As long as people see you being detained by the police, they’re going to question what kind of business this is," said Ricketts. "The U.S. constitution has been amended so many times, so could this piece of legislation."

But what about the complaint about recklessness and the lack of safety? Mellors said safety is uppermost in the drivers’ minds. "They are extremely mindful" when it comes to safety, he pointed out. "We have said that it is essential that the vans operate in a safe manner."

Kathleen Richard, a leading member of Rosedale Civic Association, backs the dollar van service but wants more attention paid to safety. "Their service helps a lot of people," she said. "Bus service here is very sporadic. I know I can walk to a corner and a van will come. But a lot of them are uninsured and they’re very reckless."

However, she was quick to add that what the van operators were doing is trying to make a living. "They are a value to the community," she declared.

Matthew Daus, a member of the Taxi and Limousine Commission, agrees. "Time and again, they’ve stepped up to the plate when the city has called on them," he said.

Like many people in and out of Queens who support the vans, Daus worries about drivers and owners who are operating without a license and are under-insured. The commission regulates about 374 "dollar" vehicles and almost 394 drivers but many more operate outside of the commission’s reach.

"The future is not bright for those who don’t have licenses with us," said Daus.

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