City eyes dollar vans for dead MTA routes

By Gary Buiso

Extinct bus lines are getting new life, thanks to a city-hatched plan to improve, and effectively privatize service along select routes abandoned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Earlier this month, the Taxi and Limousine Commission approved the initiative, called the Group Ride Vehicle Pilot Program that will allow privately owned livery vans to pick up the slack — and customers — along bus routes eliminated last month by the cash-strapped state agency.

The vans will rumble along the old routes, and only be allowed to pick up passengers at specified locations — but drop-offs can be at location negotiated by the driver and commuter.

In Brooklyn, the vans will travel along three now-defunct bus routes: The B23, which connects Kensington to Borough Park, the B71 which rumbles through Park Slope, Carroll Gardens and Prospect Heights, and the former B39, which travels from Williamsburg into Manhattan.

Officials cheered the plan.

“The innovative decision by the TLC to place the Group Ride Vehicle Pilot Program along the discontinued B23 line goes a long way towards providing residents with a safe and affordable way to travel,” said City Councilman David Greenfield.

When the rubber hits the road, not everyone is getting on board.

“I don’t think this is a good thing,” said Kensington resident and former B23 rider Rabbi Aaron Schenker. “I’ve been on some of these buses and I’m not happy how they operate. They’re unprofessional. A private bus line will never be able to have the back-up of a city bus.”

The city insisted it is not looking to privatize mass transit.

“The best outcome is a robust, healthy MTA that can provide bus service everywhere it is needed,” said David Yassky, commissioner of the Taxi and Limousine Commission. “Since we don’t have that at the moment, all we can try to do is give commuters the best set of options we can — we are not replacing the MTA.”

Two agency-sponsored meetings have already drawn strong interest from van operators, with about 20 companies in attendance at each informational session, the most recent held last week, according to the agency.

But not all the companies are revved up about the plan.

“They are trying to use us, but there is nothing in it for us,” said Winston Williams, owner of Blackstreet Van Lines. “I think they’re full of it.” Williams said the program will have too many restrictions to make it profitable, particularly the inability to pick up passengers where the driver sees fit.

Yassky insisted van companies will have plenty of reasons to participate in the program.

“Their incentive is that if they can make money transporting people, they will do it. Our market research tell us that there are providers willing and eager to serve the market.”

The buses will be able to transport up to 20 passengers, each paying a flat $2.00 fare — a quarter less than a city bus ride. The agency said it decided upon the routes in the pilot program based on MTA ridership data. If the program is successful, its coverage could expand, the agency said.

The MTA applauded the assistance.

“The MTA welcomes the city’s independent efforts to promote livery van service in areas where funding is insufficient to support public transportation,” spokesman Kevin Ortiz said.

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