HARLEM — An entrepreneur who started a private bus line to take over canceled MTA routes plans to launch an inter-city bus service between New York and Boston — but blindsided local leaders fear they're being left out of the process.
After the recent demise of discount Boston-to-New York carrier Fung Wah, Interstate Bus owner Joel Azumah said the time is right to launch the service, which would leave from between East 124th and East 125th streets and Park Avenue in East Harlem. He plans to offer four trips per day to Boston, seven days per week, for $20 each way starting on March 29 at the Metropolitan Transit Authority's M98 bus stop.
Azumah said what makes his company different is that it will offer full refunds within 48 hours — compared to some lines where tickets are non-refundable — and will not charge extra during peak hours. By placing the bus stop in Harlem as opposed to Midtown, Azumah says, the buses would avoid the traffic of getting to and from Midtown, and make the trip in less than four hours.
"We don't think it's necessary for all of the buses going to and from Boston to stop in Midtown. If passengers want to go to Midtown, they have a reliable subway right there. You also have the Metro-North station at 125th Street, as well," he said. "Now, the buses go by the subway and get stuck in traffic on the way to Midtown."
The Department of Transportation, however, said it had not received any applications for an inter-city bus stop at the location, officials said. The current review process involving the DOT, community and inter-city buses is voluntary, said DOT officials.
However, state legislators gave the city the power to regulate inter-city bus lines last year and a process is currently being implemented, said DOT spokesman Seth Solomonow.
"The system is now being thoroughly reviewed on its way into the City’s rulemaking process as early as next week, and taking effect in about 90 days," Solomonow said in a statement.
Two accidents involving the low-cost bus lines left 17 people dead in 2011. Fung Wah had its license permanently revoked by the federal Department of Transportation earlier this month, after officials said it refused to cooperate with safety inspections.
Another Chinatown low-cost bus carrier, Ming An, was also shut down by federal authorities earlier this month after being declared a "imminent hazard to public safety."
Azumah's plan, meanwhile, was news to local leaders.
"125th Street is already one of our most challenging corridors," said Community Board 11 Transportation Committee chair Peggy Morales. "You can't just come and decide, 'I'm going to do this here.'
"I don't know that what he's doing is legal," she said.
Park Avenue is also a narrow street, Morales added. Locals already complain about crowded sidewalks, due to the buses that bring people to and from the homeless shelters on Ward's Island at Lexington Avenue and East 125th Street.
"We've had residents complaining about idling buses all the time," said CB 11 District Manager George Sarkissian. "If you are telling me there will be idling buses waiting on our side streets, that's definitely a concern."
Azumah said he believes federal interstate transportation laws allow him to pick up passengers and that city traffic laws allow him to stop at the M98 bus stop, as long as he is loading passengers and not interfering with city buses.
He added he has no plans to consult CB 11 nor the DOT.
"The location where we are stopping has the ability for us to stop there. My company has decided we will stop in this area," Azumah said. "I think it's important to make a move now, when people are looking for affordable transportation."
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority said Azumah currently does not need permission to pick up passengers at the stop but that a permit would likely be required in the future under the new regulations being written by DOT.
In 2010, Azumah's company TransportAzumah was slapped with a restraining order after he sent 12 buses and vans to pick up commuters who were stranded when the X90 and QM2 bus lines were cut. Azumah charged riders between $3 and $6 each, but the city objected and sent cease-and-desist letters before getting the restraining order.
Azumah argued that the buses were charter buses and required no franchise from the city, while city officials felt the bus was a public line that required city permission. Azumah said he is appealing the permanent injunction that was put in place.
For his latest venture with Interstate Bus, a separate business entity than TransportAzumah, Azumah said he plans to use a fully-licensed chartered bus line at first, before phasing in his own buses.
He plans to offer trips at 8 a.m., noon, 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Azumah said he understands the concerns of the local community and would be willing to consider another drop-off location. He said some of the concerns about crowded streets are overblown because his buses will only carry 57 passengers and have just one bus leaving four times per day.
"There aren't going to be 300 people on the street at any given time, because we only have 57 seats," Azumah said. "The impact that's being felt elsewhere won't happen here."
However, after being denied space at the Port Authority Bus Terminal and the George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal, he said Harlem provides an ideal location.
"All of the buses going out of town should not be concentrated on Midtown's streets. Residents and business owners are not happy about that either," Azumah said. "The question is how to make the management of inter-city buses palatable for communities, and the answer is to not dump them all in one place."
Still, Morales said launching a business in East Harlem without talking to stakeholders does not signal a good beginning in the community.
"I don't have an opposition to providing a service," she said, "but to roll out a plan of this nature they need to do their homework first."