Lawmakers Hope to Reign in Commuter Van Industry in Wake of West New York Tragedy

By David Cruz
NJ Today

The terrible accident that claimed the life of 8-month-old Angelie Paredes of North Bergen this summer prompted outrage and grief from residents and now spurred at least talk of action from lawmakers. At a hearing of the Assembly Transportation Committee, member Angelica Jimenez said it was past time for action.

“It’s time that they’re held to a standard that our transit workers have to be held to and that most drivers of chartered buses have to be held to and I’m happy that it’s going to be heard,” said Jimenez. “Unfortunately it took a tragedy.”

Unlike other mass transit, commuter vans, or jitneys — they go by a variety of names — are mostly unregulated by the state. Drivers generally rent the vehicle from fleet owners and make their money on fares above the daily rental. Jeff Shanker of the Limousine Association of New Jersey said he’s witnessed reckless behavior on the part of many commuter van drivers.

“I have seen the jitney buses up in the Northern areas, doing what I call “leap frog” operation because they’re trying to expeditiously get to the next stop to pick up more fares and pass one that may be picking up two or three passengers which, of course, creates dynamic, incredible safety issues,” he testified.

Assembly bill 3993 — sponsored by Assemblyman Charles Mainor — would require the state Motor Vehicle Commission to come up with uniform regulations, mandate background and drug checks for all drivers, require them to have commercial driver’s licenses and force them to carry $1 million in insurance.

“The biggest point we want to make is bringing safety and bringing a different type of regulation and making it organized,” said Mainor. “Our constituents deserve that much.”

Officials estimate close to 300,000 passenger trips a day between North Jersey and Manhattan, a number which continues to grow as more residents come to live in New Jersey and work in New York. It’s a growing market and some lawmakers said today that they favor better regulation, but not at the expense of the industry or the commuters who rely on it. Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll is generally reluctant to regulate industry in the state.

“I want to listen to this again to make sure they’re not creating undue barriers to entry,” he said. “I mean, at the end of the day, you want to make sure jitneys are safe but you don’t want to make it unreasonably difficult to secure that transportation alternative.”

Lawmakers say they don’t have a timetable for a bill, so the onus remains on municipalities to enforce a patchwork of local regulations that most everyone agrees amounts to insufficient protection for commuters, and in this case, innocent bystanders.