The State Assembly recently passed legislation introduced by 31st District Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti that would place stricter regulations on privately owned commuter shuttles/jitneys by requiring vehicles be registered with and receive approval from each municipality in which they operate.
If the legislation passes the State Senate intact, violators of provisions of the bill would be subject to a civil penalty of $1,000 for a first violation, $2,000 for a second violation, and $5,000 for a third or subsequent violation.
In localizing some regulatory control, Assemblyman Chiaravalloti and Hudson County officials hope the new rules will be effective and send a message to the legislature that jitney bus problems affect quality of life and street safety.
The legislation was crafted after a jitney bus driver struck and killed an 11-year-old boy in Jersey City in October. A slew of red flags and safety violations brought the issue front and center.
Sometimes, state laws preclude local officials for conducting their own oversight.
“Right now, local law enforcement feels their hands are tied, but we all recognize there is a problem here,” said Chiaravalloti. “I think this legislation gives us some political teeth to say this is a serious problem impacting our local communities. These are issues that need statewide solutions but can be guided at the local level.”
Chiaravalloti, Bayonne Mayor James Davis, Hudson County Sheriff Frank Schillari, Hudson County Freeholder Kenneth Kopacz, and Bayonne Councilman Thomas Cotter held a joint meeting on June 21 to discuss stronger enforcement of current laws and future actions that can be taken.
“The issue has been a nuisance to our residents,” said Cotter, whose ward is the starting point for many jitney bus drivers, who clog the sides of the boulevard with engines idling. The buses have been known to catch fire, and the drivers known to drive carelessly. “I’m glad to see action being taken,” Cotter said.
NJ Transit doesn’t meet all needs
The big-picture issue may have more to do with public transit divestment and lax regulations from a bygone era. Local officials agree that the NJ Transit bus network is insufficient to meet the public’s transit needs. Without investment in public transit, other companies step in to fill the void.
Enter the jitney bus business model. According to an independent investigation by the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), many jitney bus companies do not operate like traditional charter bus companies. Drivers show up to a garage to pay a flat fee to drive the bus for the day, making their profit from cash-only fares. This business model incentivizes unsafe driving because it creates competition for fares among jitney bus drivers. Additionally, traditional bus companies compete for ridership at the same bus stops. The result is jitney bus drivers driving erratically to pick up as many passengers as possible from other buses.
Yet, jitneys still get business, especially with residents commuting within the county. That’s because NJ Transit charges $1.60 for a one-zone ride, compared with $1.75 flat fare for a jitney bus ride for the entire length of JFK Boulevard. So, jitneys can take intra-county riders away from NJ Transit, as well as from other charter bus companies.
Bad drivers make for unsafe streets, and thus a worse quality of life for residents, according to Kara Hrabosky, cofounder of Safe Streets JC, a Jersey City-based advocacy organization. Safety standards for her and other street-safety advocates are high. “No traffic death, no loss of life is acceptable,” Hrabosky said. “Jitney buses are one of many pieces contributing to issues of traffic safety. I think what the Assembly folks are doing with this step is an important piece to the puzzle.”
In 2013, state legislators passed Angelie’s Law, after a baby girl from North Bergen was killed in 2013 when a jitney bus driver accidentally drove into a light pole in West New York. The pole fell on her baby stroller as her mother pushed her along the West New York waterfront. A simple walk on a sunny day turned tragic in an instant.
Angelie’s Law applies to buses that operate on public highways and carry no more than 40 passengers within New Jersey or between states. The law mandates that the buses must have a sign with a phone number for customers to call and make complaints. Investigators from the Division of Consumer Affairs may ask to view the company’s registration and insurance for vehicles, licenses, a record of fines and arrests, and can view signed documents by drivers taking pledges not to text and drive.
Litany of problems
Hrabosky complained about unsafe drivers and a lack of incentives to drive safely. But she also recognized some new designs that have helped, such as a countywide initiative in October to implement Leading Pedestrian Intervals (LPI), which changed signal light timing during evening and weekend hours to give pedestrians more time to cross the 150-foot-wide boulevard. The county has also installed speeding strips on some parts of the boulevard and has been cracking down on speeders.
Still, design solutions, such as reducing the width of the road, or policy solutions, such as funding sufficient mass transit, seem elusive to grassroots organizers.
“The issue of traffic safety is much bigger than this bill,” said Hrabosky, who argues for better street design that inherently provides safer spaces for all kinds of transportation, called Complete Streets design. She said, “Making streets nicer and safer gets more people out, builds community, helps the environment, and secondarily it reduces violent crime.”
Rory Pasquariello may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org