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Illegal vans running wild: Comrie

Marcia Smith said she has trouble determining if the commuter vans she takes each day to work as a patient care associate and to graduate courses at Long Island University are licensed or not.

The Cambria Heights resident is not alone as unlicensed vans cruise southeast Queens streets illegally picking up unwitting customers at bus stops, along busy roads and in other locations where it is against the law to do so.

Leaders are taking notice of the problem and the safety and economic concerns it raises. City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans), hosted a news conference Friday afternoon, attended by more than two dozen licensed van drivers and owners of van companies at a South Jamaica community van staging area to draw attention to the problem and implore the NYPD and city agencies to increase enforcement of van industry laws and regulations.

“I use the vans, but it’s hard for me to tell what’s a legal van and what is not,” Smith said Friday. “There are times when I’m just rushing and I just get on a van. I applaud the efforts to address this situation.”

Comrie said increasing numbers of illegal van drivers cause a host of problems for passengers and licensed van operators. The No. 1 concern, he said, is the safety of passengers since drivers who do not hold commercial drivers’ licenses, or CDLs, and do not work for legitimate companies have less of an incentive to provide safe, satisfactory rides for riders who use their services. Drivers present at the event told tales of unlicensed vans driving on sidewalks, running red lights and engaging in other unsafe activities.

“What is plaguing the van drivers are all the illegal vans that are stealing their business. These companies are paying up to $100,000 a year in fees to be able to even be on the road,” Comrie said, referring to legitimate operations. “We have too many people that wake up in the morning and get in a van to steal these drivers’ fares. If people are paying 100 grand a year, it’s upon the city to do all they can to protect the industry.”

The preponderance of unlicensed vans presents hardships for licensed drivers, who pay tens of thousands of dollars annually for permits, fees and insurance for the privilege to carry passengers, according to Gladstone Barrett, a driver for Yours ‘n Mine Transportation Service in Jamaica, who said he shells out $8,500 a year just to insure his van.

He said the law-abiding drivers’ profits are undercut by illegal van drivers who ignore regulations and laws, forge permit window stickers issued by the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, or TLC, and otherwise skirt proper procedures. Barrett advocates increased authority for the TLC to fine and penalize offending drivers.

“It’s time for the city to step up and better regulate the van industry to protect customers. When TLC comes out here and tows an illegal van, the drivers tear the ticket up and just go pay the tow fee and they’re back on the street in two hours,” Barrett said. “They do that because they’re not in TLC’s system, so what TLC needs to do is when they tow an illegal van, charge them at least a $1,000 fine.”

The Queens district attorney’s office moved to enforce the van laws last Thursday, charging a licensed insurance broker with insurance fraud, among other crimes. He allegedly failed to pay $150,000 in premiums by under-insuring almost two dozen commuter vans operating in Far Rockaway, acting as if they were vanpools. A vanpool is a group of people who commute together in a van and split the cost.

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at csheets@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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