- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Obama administration’s “relentless” war on unsafe bus companies has claimed at least a dozen victims over the past two years — and the industry wants to see more.

“There’s more that can be done. We believe there are companies out there operating either at levels on the margins of the law, or breaking the law,” said Dan Ronan, American Bus Association spokesman. “Those companies need to be shut down, and the government needs to do what it needs to do to get those companies off the road.”

Earlier this month, the Department of Transportation forced Oregon-based bus firm RC Investments to close its doors after an investigation found the company wasn’t using licensed drivers, nor had it implemented drug- and alcohol-testing protocols for its employees.

In June, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he would continue “relentlessly targeting unsafe and illegal bus companies” after shuttering North Carolina’s Sky Express, the firm involved in a crash that led to four deaths and at least 50 injuries after one of its motorcoaches overturned in Virginia on May 31.

Following the crash, the company tried to continue selling tickets under a different name - twice. Federal investigators weren’t fooled, and Sky Express was hit with a cease-and desist-order from the Transportation Department.

Later in June, Mr. LaHood ordered Haines Tours, a Michigan motorcoach company, to close up shop after it was discovered the outfit had repeatedly put passengers in the luggage compartment of crowded buses.

“Safety is everyone’s responsibility. That means not putting human beings in cargo holds,” Mr. LaHood said in a statement announcing the closure.

Bus accidents have been responsible for at least two dozen deaths this year. Fifteen resulted from a tour bus crash in New York City in March, and investigators later learned the operator, employed by World Wide Tours, had a criminal record and had been arrested for driving without a license.

The rash of bad news comes at a time of rapid growth for the industry. A weak economy has reversed years of decline, with passengers seeking cheaper alternatives to planes or trains.

From 2000 to 2006, the bus business dropped by 8 percent. In 2008, it changed course and grew by 9.8 percent. From 2010 to 2011, the industry saw a 7.1 increase in ridership, according to a new study from DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.

The Chaddick study said the continued growth in 2011 “reflects a continued change in the dynamics of American transportation that began almost five years ago.”

The researchers concluded, “Arguably, the explosive growth in curbside [bus] service have been the most significant change in downtown-oriented long-distance travel in more than a half-century.”

More passengers also means more scrutiny, and the industry is keenly aware that it is being watched more closely than ever. The Obama administration is pushing for even more authority in both monitoring companies and, when necessary, shutting them down.

“We continue using all of the tools at our disposal to get unsafe carriers off the road,” Mr. LaHood said in July, adding that his department needs more authority to “expand oversight.”

Specifically, the Obama administration is taking aim at “reincarnated” companies, such as Sky Express, which can reopen under different names with little difficulty.

“It’s too easy for people to get into the industry,” Mr. Ronan said. “It costs more in the District of Columbia to run a hot dog stand than it does to get a Department of Transportation sticker to start a bus company. That’s insane.”

It costs only $300, Mr. Ronan said, to secure the proper DOT credentials and put buses on the road. The vehicles must still be inspected, but the low startup prices make it relatively easy to get a motorcoach business off the ground. If a firm is fined or shut down, it can reopen with a different DOT number, but still retain the same procedures and drivers.

Despite the fact that forced closures give the industry a black eye and often cost responsible bus drivers their jobs, Mr. Ronan said that’s a small price to pay to ensure the 750 million people who board buses annually are in good hands.

“We’ve made great strides as an industry over the last several years, but the bad guys do a real disservice to the folks who have good operations and who do things the right way,” he said.

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