Commuters in North Bergen and surrounding towns sometimes prefer to save time and money by skipping NJ Transit’s buses and taking the smaller, independent jitney vans that run to New York City and Journal Square.
But in the last few years, several county inspections have forced the jitneys to pay fines for safety violations including bad brakes and an exit door being welded shut.
Three weeks ago, the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office held a surprise inspection of local jitneys. Twenty-three out of 33 jitneys were found to be unsafe and taken out of service.
Hudson County Prosecutor Edward DeFazio said that although such inspections started several years ago, the number of violations have only gotten worse.
Why they choose it
For Hudson County bus riders, the decision to use NJ Transit or their smaller jitney bus competitors rests on factors like safety, comfort, reliability, and cost.
“I prefer [NJ Transit], and I’ll tell you why,” said Martha Perz as she rode on a jitney bus south on Bergenline Avenue in North Bergen this week. “[NJ Transit] has air conditioning.”
Owners and drivers of the jitney buses are well aware of this fact. Some of them have bumper stickers saying “air conditioning” on their doors to lure passengers.
However, Perz does take the jitneys if they come before NJ Transit arrives. NJ Transit buses are not as frequent as the jitneys.
On Bergenline Avenue, where many buses drive south toward Journal Square or north to Fairview, Cliffside Park, or New York City, it’s easy to understand why a jitney bus may reach riders before NJ Transit. The jitneys follow each other in close pursuit, and many of them are the first to get to bus stops, with NJ Transit buses close behind. Drivers honk their horns to alert waiting passengers and pull over abruptly.
One jitney bus had its exit door welded shut.
Qualifications for jitneys
In order to own and/or drive a jitney, operators need several qualifications.
Depending on whether the jitney seats up to 15 or up to 30 passengers, the driver needs to have a class B or class C Commercial Drivers License (CDL). Their vehicle must also have an “Omnibus” license plate, which means they have registered the vehicle with the federal government.
According to the MVC, under New Jersey guidelines, these buses must be inspected on their “company property” twice a year, which is done by the state MVC mobile inspection team.
In addition, the MVC participates in surprise inspections by agencies like the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office, which receives federal funding for that purpose.
The state MVC said that if a jitney driver receives motor vehicle violations against their CDL, they must resolve the issues and pay their fines, just like with any other license, before they can drive again. If they wait longer than three years to do so, then they have to retest for the CDL.
Inspection shows problems
“It’s a chronic safety issue and it’s showing no signs of abating,” said DeFazio last week. “We realize that these commuter buses, whatever you would call them, do provide a service, but it has to be done correctly and safely.”
When his office and the state MVC conducted their surprise inspections on Bergenline Avenue in North Bergen last month, a combined 285 citation violations were filed by the MVC. These problems included brake lights, bald tires, steering wheel problems, suspension, exhaust issues, and even an emergency door welded shut.
Also, three drivers allegedly lacked insurance.
One driver, seeing the checkpoint up ahead, allegedly attempted to avoid it, DeFazio said. He parked his jitney a few blocks away in a private lot, locked its doors, and ran. DeFazio said that later, his office was able to make contact with the driver.
To take a jitney or not
For Cliffside Park resident Gerald Regan, buying NJ Transit’s monthly bus pass is more economically feasible than taking the jitneys, even though NJ Transit recently increased fares by 25 percent.
“I use the NJ Transit and I just like them,” said Regan. “It’s convenient for me.”
North Bergen resident Nativita Martinez said that she uses NJ Transit because she is a senior citizen. Some jitneys do not offer discounts to senior citizens and children.
“Those buses are loud,” said Rosaline Acosta, of North Bergen, referring to the music many jitney drivers play. She also said that many drivers talk on their cell phones.
She and her friend Rosario Calderon both feel that jitney drivers were less safe than NJ Transit drivers.
“They are better drivers,” said Calderon. “[Jitneys] go so slow. They try to stop on every red light and try to wait for people. They are so slow.”
But an anonymous North Bergen resident said that taking a jitney is a faster alternative, rather than waiting for an NJ Transit bus. The person also said the fares are cheaper.
“The only thing I don’t like about NJ Transit is the schedule,” said Calderon. “It’s so long from one to another. That’s why people use jitneys. Plus, it’s cheaper too. The other ones are too expensive.”
Tricia Tirella may be reached at TriciaT@hudsonreporter.com.
A jitney driver’s lament
Samuel Martinez of Union City has been driving his bus for 11 years and has been on the same Bergenline Avenue route since 2009. He begins picking up passengers at 4:40 p.m. and works until 5 a.m. the next day.
“We are going okay,” he said. “We have good service. With NJ Transit, its half hour, every hour, but we are more fast.”
He said inspections for jitneys are sometimes unfair. He believes police target the jitneys and not NJ Transit’s buses.
North Bergen Patrol Commander Lt. James Somers said that sometimes the jitneys get too aggressive.
“There are sometimes disputes between drivers trying to jockey between positions to pick up passengers,” said Somers. “They also do that with NJ Transit at times. It’s not a constant thing, but it does happen.”
Somers said inspections have revealed that a lot of the minibuses are unsafe and passengers are “taking their lives into their hands” on vehicles with bad brakes and other problems.
“We understand that these folks are trying to make a living, but they run these buses and they are not maintaining them,” said Somers.
Somers said that police can stop a vehicle that appears to have an obvious problem, like brake lights or bald tires, but they cannot stop one that may have more serious issues, because a certified inspector from the state MVC must do so. – TT