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Dollar Vans See Lifeline in State Bill Easing Insurance Costs

A bill to establish a regulated insurance program passed both chambers of the state legislature last week, and could help commuter van drivers get back on the road.

SHARE Dollar Vans See Lifeline in State Bill Easing Insurance Costs

A dollar van picks up a passenger on Flatbush Avenue across from the Barclays Center, June 16, 2023.

Marcus Santos/THE CITY

Drivers of licensed commuter vans are hoping Albany will help stabilize a battered industry that now has barely 30 fully insured operators on city streets — an 85% drop from 2019, when there were more than 200.

Lawmakers in the state Senate and Assembly last week approved matching bills designed to lower insurance rates for long-struggling dollar van drivers through a state-regulated program, plus a separate state fund aimed at rebuilding the ranks of a once-thriving business that has been shrinking for years.

THE CITY reported in April that hundreds of dollar vans licensed to operate within certain zones have dropped off the books since 2015, when there were 584, according to data from the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC). And the number of drivers has plummeted from 223 in 2019 to 69 today.

But advocates and elected officials said that shakeup has come at a significant safety cost for those who catch rides with dollar vans (which may cost $2 or more) that may not be licensed. The number of unlicensed commuter vans in operation is unknown, according to the TLC.

“You have more people driving uninsured, unlicensed, unregistered and unsafe in New York City than at any time before,” said Leroy Morrison, president of the NYC Commuter Van Association and the owner of Alexis Van Lines in Brooklyn, in an interview with THE CITY. 

“But if they come with the insurance, they can go back to work” that is aboveboard and safer, he said of the legislation that’s a potential lifeline to above-board commuter van operators whose premiums have skyrocketed over the last two decades.

Driven Out

According to advocates and drivers, some operators pay more than $30,000 annually in insurance costs, with premiums going as high as $50,000. 

Gov. Kathy Hochul would have to sign off on the $50 million, five-year program, in addition to the $11.2 million authorized in the 2023 state budget for the Commuter Van Stabilization Program, which is supposed to subsidize insurance rates. Hochul spokesperson John Lindsay said the governor will “carefully review the legislation.”

The bill’s primary sponsor in Albany’s upper chamber told THE CITY the legislation is vital to propping up licensed commuter van services. For decades they have offered a colorful, low-cost service for New Yorkers in areas with fewer transportation options — often largely immigrant communities in Brooklyn, The Bronx, Manhattan and Queens. 

“We’re going to take that money and have that as the seed money working with commuter van stabilization money,” state Senator Leroy Comrie (D-Queens) told THE CITY. “Their insurance has driven most of them out of the market through excessive insurance costs — this would lower the cost substantially by 20 to 40%.”

On the Road Again?

Desmond West, a commuter van driver for more than 30 years, hasn’t driven either of his two vehicles since 2020, when fewer than 10% of the licensed vehicles stayed in service. 

“I had to close during the pandemic because the city buses were riding for free,” West said. “If people are riding for free in the city bus, they ain’t gonna take the vans and there was not enough passengers out there for it to be feasible. I’d like to get back into business but, really, it’s impossible.” 

Prior to the pandemic, West, 66, was paying $30,000 annually to insure his commuter vans. He has been working as a security officer at a Brooklyn hospital while his two vans from Royal Roads Transportation have remained sidelined, but said he would take the wheel again “immediately” if the proposed law takes effect.

“If this bill is passed, it would be good for me,” said West, who immigrated from Jamaica in 1986. “It would be good for the mechanics, it would be good for the repair shops, it would be good for the state DOT inspectors that normally go to our facilities to inspect our vans.” 

Dollar vans began to emerge during a 1980 transit strike and rose in popularity later that decade, with trips for a buck. While some routes now charge as much as $3, they are usually less expensive than the $2.75 MTA bus and subway fare.

“This bill is really, really important because the commuter van industry serves in some of the most underserved areas in the entire city of New York,” said Assemblymember Khaleel Anderson, a Queens Democrat and the bill’s primary sponsor in the Assembly. 

Comrie said he looks forward to discussing the details on dollar vans with Hochul’s team.  

“I think it will be positive once they understand the numbers and the ratings,” he said. “They will be saving hundreds of small business entrepreneurs throughout the state because it captures a much wider market than they realize.”

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