QUEENS — The city seized more than 1,000 commuter vans since the beginning of last year for operating without proper permits, but many of them return to the streets after their owners pay a fine in what some call a revolving door, city officials said.
The issue came into focus last week after a driver whose license had been suspended fled police officers, leading a woman to try to escape by leaping from the moving vehicle, police said.
It was not the first time that Jameson Golding, 22, who has 14 prior arrests, was accused of trying to escape police while driving a van — he was arrested for a similar incident in March in Brooklyn. That case is ongoing.
For decades, so-called “dollar vans” have been a popular way of getting around in the areas traditionally underserved by public transportation and taxis. Both licensed and unlicensed vans are a common sight in Southeast Queens, Flushing, East Flatbush and The Bronx.
For $1.50 to $2, passengers can catch a ride from Jamaica to Rochdale, Cambria Heights, St. Albans or Rockaway.
There are about 300 permitted drivers who drive about 460 authorized vans, but there is also a vast network of illegal drivers and vehicles that some say take business away from legitimate drivers and create a dangerous situation for passengers.
Allan Fromberg, a spokesman for the TLC, said in an email that the agency conducts “regular van enforcement operations in close coordination with the NYPD.”
From the beginning of 2013, the TLC seized 1,064 unlicensed vans, the agency said Friday. It was not clear exactly where the vans were seized. The NYPD did not respond to an email seeking comment.
But a city official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that the current system makes it easy for the owners to get the vans back on the streets.
"Somebody could drive illegally in an illegal van and not having a license," the source said. Then they "get caught, the vehicle will get seized, they can pay the fines and get their vehicle back," the source added.
To retrieve a van that has been confiscated, owners are able to pay a $2,000 bond before their court appearance. Part or all of the money can be refunded depending on fines levied.
Fines range from $750 for the first offense to $1,150 for a third offense within 36 months. Each time, van owners also have to pay $270 for towing and release fees and $80 per day that the vehicle is in storage. There are no criminal penalties associated with the process.
The TLC auctions off vehicles that are abandoned by their owners or in cases where fines are not paid, but officials said that these instances are rare.
Since May 2013, when the agency started auctioning vehicles, only 44 vans have been sold. The rest of the vans seized since the beginning of the year have been returned.
According to the TLC, drivers who lack proper permits to operate commuter vans and are caught by authorities usually receive summonses, which they often fail to pay.
Drivers who have proper licenses said that the light punishment given to illegal van drivers leads to careless driving.
“These lunatics are reckless and they don’t care if people’s lives are in danger,” David Clarke, a licensed van driver, said last week.
“The problem is getting out of control and something needs to be done about it."
Hector Ricketts, owner of Community Transportation Systems, which has a fleet of more than 30 vans, estimates that there are at least as many illegal "dollar van" drivers as there are legal ones.
“They hurt our image,” he said.
Ricketts — who founded the Interborough Alliance for Community Transportation, an organization advocating on behalf of van drivers and other drivers — claims there is not enough enforcement from the TLC and NYPD to curb illegal drivers and van owners.
Illegal drivers, unlike those who obtain all the permits, avoid being fingerprinted and do not pass medical exams. Unauthorized operators also may dodge paying liability insurance and don’t go through proper safety inspections.
Many illegal drivers in Jamaica pick up passengers at bus stops along Archer Avenue, even though the TLC bans drivers from picking up passengers along any MTA bus routes, elected officials and drivers said.
Councilman Daneek Miller, who represents Jamaica, St. Albans, Hollis, Cambria Heights and Queens Village, said he would like to see the vans gone from the neighborhood, whether they are legal or not.
Instead of “dollar vans” which he called a “really poor alternative to public transportation” he wants the city to invest more money in buses.
“I believe that our community is entitled and deserves public transportation that provides safe and affordable commute and is accessible to all our community,” said Miller, who once served as the head of Amalgamated Transportation Union (ATU) Local No. 1056, which represents drivers and mechanics working for NYC Transit's Queens Bus Division.
But passengers commuting by vans disagreed.
“People take the van because they need to get home fast,” said Nicola Chin, 38, of Laurelton, who works in East Harlem as a human resources specialist.
Chin, who has two children, said she can get a free transfer from the subway to the bus, but she prefers to take a van instead and pay an extra $4 a day.
“It’s half an hour extra [a day] with the MTA,” she said. “I don’t want to be stuck on the bus forever. I can get home faster and spend more time with my kids.”