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New York - Yearlong Effort Will Add Vans to Transit Options

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New York - Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced a yearlong pilot program on Tuesday that will allow commuter vans to pick up passengers in parts of Brooklyn and Queens with limited access to public transportation or where bus service cuts will take effect next week.

The announcement signals that the Bloomberg administration is open to reviewing the van industry’s tight regulations, which the City Council passed in 1994 under pressure by bus drivers, who see the vans as a potential threat to their jobs.

It also signifies a small yet significant victory for commuter van drivers, who have lobbied for years for permission to pick up passengers along bus routes without having to prearrange the fares.

To commuters, there are advantages and disadvantages. The vans will provide them with a means of reaching transportation hubs or other parts of the borough. But because the vans are privately operated, passengers who are connecting to a subway or bus will have to pay $2 to ride the vans as well as public transportation fare, which is $2.25 for a single trip.

“The issue here is not whether it’s more expensive or less expensive; it’s whether the service exists or not,” Mr. Bloomberg said at a news conference near Queens College in Flushing, by a stop for the Q74 bus, one of the lines that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will eliminate on Sunday.

Bus drivers huddled across the street, saying that they felt slighted by a plan that could fill the void left by discontinued bus lines in some areas at a time when hundreds of them are set to lose their jobs.

Mr. Bloomberg faced off with the group before the announcement, saying, “Nobody has been out there screaming for more money for the M.T.A. more than I have.” Later, he criticized lawmakers in Albany for jettisoning his congestion pricing proposal, which could have created an additional source of revenue for the transportation agency.

The pilot program will establish three to six new commuter van routes in Brooklyn and Queens. The routes will be determined in the coming weeks, said David Yassky, the city’s taxi and limousine commissioner. It is scheduled to last a year, but it could be expanded depending on the results, he said.

In an interview, I. Daneek Miller, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1056, which represents bus drivers in Queens, said the program was “clearly not the answer” because it exposed passengers to the dangers of an industry that had operated with little oversight over the years, allowing for unregulated vans to proliferate to where they probably outnumbered the 330 vans that were licensed.

Mr. Yassky said enforcement would be a key to the pilot program, as well as to all of the industry, which carries an estimated 15,000 passengers daily from outlying areas of Queens and Brooklyn to transportation hubs, the financial center of Manhattan, a mall in Nassau County and other locations.

Last week, during a few hours in central and southern Brooklyn, taxi inspectors and officers from four police precincts seized 35 illegal vans and issued 73 summonses to unregulated drivers. Similar operations are planned with more frequency than in the past, Mr. Yassky said.

Hector Ricketts, who started out as a van driver when the business emerged during the 1980 public transit strike and who now has a fleet of his own, said he believed that at least 400 illegal commuter vans circulated on city streets on any given day. Mr. Ricketts said legal drivers were just as concerned about the risks to passengers, and to their reputation.

“It is unfortunate that the unions have this on an either-or situation,” he said, noting that vans “will never replace bus service” and can “coexist in harmony.”

Mr. Ricketts added that the city had to enforce the rules. “We won’t be successful if illegal activity is not addressed,” he said.

NY Times
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