The death of 11-year George Gonzalez, struck by a jitney bus on Kennedy Boulevard in Jersey City on Oct. 14, is prompting new action on regulations that apply to the vehicles. As for right now, if a local police officer sees a jitney bus operating and suspects a potential violation with the van – suspended license for the driver, no insurance, or other problems – the cop’s hands are legally tied, officials said. Local officials have to work with state or federal entities to conduct mass inspections or enforcement.
“We just can’t do it,” said Jersey City police officer last week. “And it’s frustrating. Because we know there is a problem. But we don’t have jurisdiction.”
“I am working on legislation. I’m told by lawyers that it won’t be easy.” — Nicholas Chiaravalloti,
Officials can’t intervene just because they suspect a vehicle is being operated unsafely or has safety violations in its equipment, because the jitneys crossing state lines fall under state and federal jurisdiction.
In 2013, state legislators passed Angelie’s Law, which 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.
Angelie’s Law was passed 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. Her mother was pushing her along the waterfront.
But the response has been limited. Jitneys that go from New Jersey to New York fall under federal laws that apply to taxis and limos. They are regulated by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, under regulations that govern omni buses. Technically, the state police can pull these vans over because they have the authority to operate on behalf of the federal agency. But these troopers rarely operate in Hudson County except along state roads such as the New Jersey Turnpike, and rarely if at all do enforcement on streets like Kennedy Boulevard.
Officials seeking answers
Rep. Albio Sires said last month that he intends to meet with local and state legislators to establish some kind of enforcement mechanism to catch problems with the jitneys before there are more tragedies. He said local police should have more jurisdiction over these busses.
O’Dea said he and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop would welcome a conversation that would allow the county and local governments to be able to monitor and deal with such buses.
Inspections do take place from time to time, when local law enforcement agencies partner with the state Department of Motor Vehicles. In Bayonne and North Bergen, jitneys have gotten summonses and paid fines, but are soon back on the road, often with safety violations that include bad brakes and exit doors welded shut.
In an surprise inspection done by the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office in 2014, some 23 out of 33 jitneys were found to be unsafe and were taken out of service.
Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti, whose legislative district covers the area where the death in Jersey City occurred, introduced a bill to the State Assembly two weeks ago that would further regulate the privately-owned commuter shuttles by requiring the vehicles to be registered with and receive approval from each municipality in which they operate.
“[Putting the bill together] was pretty complicated because of Title 38 and Interstate Commerce,” he said.
According to the state Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC), as of a year ago, 6,500 jitney buses are registered in New Jersey.
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.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.