By Rich Bockmann
City Councilmen Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) and Jumaane Williams (D-Brooklyn) gathered with commuter van driver-owners from both boroughs near Jamaica Center Tuesday, calling on the commissioner of the city Taxi & Limousine Commission to grandfather the commuter van companies into the outer-borough taxi street-hail plan.
Standing alongside the line of commuter vans on 153rd Street between Archer and Jamaica avenues, the councilmen said TLC Commissioner David Yassky made a number of promises as he was trying to rally support for the legislation last year, including the promise that if the bill passed he would institute rules to regulate the commuter van industry under the TLC.
“We found out Commissioner Yassky kept absolutely none of those promises,” Comrie said.
But a TLC spokesman said the commuter van industry would have the same opportunity livery-cab companies have to voluntarily join the program.
“With the greatest of respect for Councilmen Comrie and Williams, you should know that commuter vans will absolutely be welcome to participate in the borough taxi program,” said spokesman Allan Fromberg.
The Council ultimately did not approve the plan, forcing Mayor Michael Bloomberg to reach out to Gov. Andrew Cuomo to get it passed through the state Legislature. A State Supreme Court judge put a temporary restraining order on the plan after the taxi industry filed a lawsuit claiming the city and Legislature violated the state constitution by passing the law without the approval of the Council.
Comrie and Williams said they would like to see the commuter vans grandfathered into the borough tax plan in order to avoid registration costs that could put the companies out of business.
Both councilmen said their communities have long relied on commuter vans, especially in the face of cutbacks from government agencies, such as when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority eliminated several southeast Queens bus routes in 2010.
Hector Ricketts, whose commuter van company serves Queens and Brooklyn, said Mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg have signed a total of six executive orders giving the industry the authority to pick up and drop off passengers on the street. Bloomberg signed executive orders during the 2005 transit strike, and in the aftermath of the 2007 tornados allowing commuter vans to pick up and discharge passengers along bus routes.
“Once the crisis ended, things went back to normal,” Ricketts said.
Several of the commuter van company owners, most of whom drove vans themselves, said they are allowed to pick up passengers in the designated area on 153rd street, but if they were to drop a customer off just around the corner, they would be harassed by the authorities.
Part of the problem, Comrie said, was that the authorities have no way to distinguish whether a company is a legitimate one, or one of many unlicensed and often uninsured companies.
Licensing the legitimate companies through the TLC, he said, would drive the illegitimate companies out of business.
“The reason they want this is so that they can distinguish themselves with decals and symbols from the illegitimate vans,” he said. “Now that we’ve had a downturn in the economy, a lot of people are just buying vans and running them up and down the street, undercutting their business …. They’re not paying the insurance. They’re not paying any fees at all.”
“Because of the way the system is, even an enforcement officer who’s trying to do the right thing can’t tell a legitimate van from an illegitimate van,” he added.
Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4574.