Bus Lines Cited in Federal Probe

By Bill Brubaker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 2, 2006

In a recent sweep of 14 bus companies that operate in the busy Washington-New York-Boston corridor, investigators found that 11 carriers had violated the federal law that guarantees interstate service to disabled passengers, according to government officials.

The alleged violations are being probed by the Justice Department, which enforces the Americans with Disabilities Act, officials said. The ADA requires, for example, that large carriers -- with annual revenue of $7.2 million or more -- outfit at least some of their buses with wheelchair lifts. Disabled passengers must give smaller bus lines 48 hours' notice, but the carriers must find a way to accommodate them.

"There have been some pretty horrendous stories" about disabled passengers being denied bus service, said Annette M. Sandberg, who heads the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates the interstate bus and trucking industries.

Sandberg will be front and center at a congressional hearing today on low-fare bus carriers, which offer rates as low as $35 round trip between Washington and New York.

The December sweep was part of a new crackdown by the FMCSA on interstate bus companies -- low-fare lines, charter carriers and others -- that flout federal safety regulations. Sandberg and other federal officials declined to discuss the alleged ADA violations or name the 11 companies under investigation.

All told, the December compliance reviews found 176 alleged violations, most for safety-related infractions such as failing to conduct random drug and alcohol tests on drivers, officials said. These reviews followed surprise inspections of 403 buses in October that turned up more than 500 alleged violations, including speeding, faulty brakes and falsifying records that documented how long a driver has been on the road.

Sandberg, who is leaving her FMCSA post tomorrow, plans to detail the agency's new level of oversight at today's hearing before the House Transportation subcommittee on highways, transit and pipelines.

Previewing her testimony, Sandberg said new bus companies are being targeted for inspections after nine, instead of 18, months, and the FMCSA plans to make its annual grants to states contingent on state agencies demonstrating that they have effective bus safety programs.

Asked what prompted these measures, Chuck Horan, the FMCSA's enforcement and compliance director, said: "We have recently seen a spike in the death toll in the bus industry. . . . And it also seems like a lot of these of buses are catching fire."

Bus travel is relatively safe, with about half the fatality rate of automobile travel. But last year, 39 people died in accidents involving interstate bus carriers -- 11 more than in 2004 and 13 more than in 2003, according to federal data. Twenty-three of last year's victims were elderly Hurricane Rita evacuees whose bus, chartered by McLean-based Sunrise Senior Living Inc., exploded on an interstate in Texas. Two coaches operated by low-fare carriers also caught fire last year, but no passengers were hurt.

The FMCSA has been criticized by people inside and outside the bus industry for not doing enough to ensure that carriers are complying with federal safety regulations.

At today's hearing, a large industry trade group plans to criticize the agency for allowing many low-fare carriers -- also known as curbside operators -- to stay in business.

"News reports, police accident reports and passenger complaints all present the picture that these curbside operators lack the proper equipment, trained drivers and the necessary safety protocols," Peter J. Pantuso, chief executive of the American Bus Association, said in remarks prepared for the hearing.

Horan said the recent inspections show that low-fare companies are "no worse or better" than other interstate carriers.

Six of the eight low-fare carriers targeted in the FMCSA's December sweep had alleged ADA violations. Five of the six other companies included in the sweep had alleged ADA violations.

Pantuso plans to testify that low-fare carriers do not offer wheelchair lifts, which, he noted, cost $40,000 to install on each bus. "Even worse . . . if you call these operators and tell them you require a wheelchair lift, they will tell you to call Greyhound Lines" or other national carriers, Pantuso said.

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