Bus industry challenges Chicago’s party bus ordinance

By Shandra Martinez

More than a year after an ordinance targeting illegal party buses was put in place in Chicago, the effort is hurting the charter bus industry and the tourism groups they serve, bus operators say.

The ordinance requires bus companies to put security guards and cameras on buses that stop at locations that serve alcohol, whether they are bars, museums, restaurants, or ballparks. Bus operators say the ordinance is so broad that it’s hurting tourism and discouraging business groups from visiting Chicago.

“It’s like striking a carpet tack with a sledge hammer. They’re doing a lot of collateral damage,” says Carl Ekberg, Vice President and COO of the Mount Prospect, Illinois, based Chicago Classic Coach, one of the largest coach businesses in the Chicago area with 35 buses.

The ordinance was introduced in April 2017 to crack down on illegal party buses tied to an outbreak of shootings, but the rules cover not just party buses but all chartered vehicles with more than 15 riders — including trolleys, limousines, and charter buses.

Ekberg is part of a committee, which formed in July, of more than 40 industry executives to challenge the ordinance.


Violence spurs crackdown

Chicago’s crackdown on party buses comes as the Midwest metropolis continues to make national headlines for its rising murder rates. The ordinance is tact taken by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to battle escalating gun violence in the city.

The cost of putting a security guard on every stop that serves alcohol is roughly $20 to $30 an hour, companies say, a cost that bus operators say they must either absorb or pass along to clients. Failure to abide by the ordinance can result in fines of between $2,500 and $20,000, depending upon whether the citation is a first—or second or third—offense.

The city credits the ordinance for lowering gun violence and drug crimes related to party buses throughout Chicago. Incidents involving shooting on buses dropped from six in 2016 to three in 2017 to one in 2018, according to a press release issued by the city. In the past year, the release said, police have made 11 weapons- or drug-related arrests involving party buses, and issued 260 tickets to 37 companies resulting in $130,650 in fines.

Chicago Classic Coach was among the licensed charter bus companies caught in the sweeps by the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection. Ekberg said the five citations—eventually dismissed—were handed out when a bus of Chinese tourists stopped in downtown Chicago one morning for a little sightseeing before heading to New York. Two days later, the same bus was stopped in Niagara Falls for a federal inspection and received no violations, he added.


Trips getting cancelled

Ekberg says the extra expense of the regulation is resulting in canceled trips to the city by schools and other groups, noting that one client who brings in groups for symphony performances canceled three trips last year.

“He’s afraid they’re going to cancel them again this year because of the hassle of coming to the city of Chicago,” Ekberg said. “It’s at the point where we’re scaring business away because some companies are automatically slapping a security guard on anytime they come in Chicago.”

Tom Giddens, owner of Pacific Coachways, calls the Chicago Party Bus ordinance a little extreme, especially compared to California’s version. While president of the California Bus Association, Giddens worked on state legislation introduced in 2012 aimed at curbing underage drinking on “booze cruise” buses following the death of a California teen.

Giddens’ involvement resulted in getting the legislation fine-tuned enough that charter bus companies could require clients to designate chaperones on buses who would be held responsible for making sure the law was followed.


Hiring a lobbyist

The bus industry committee this summer raised money and hired a lobbyist to represent its side to city officials. So far, the mayor’s office has expressed a willingness to listen to the group, said Cherie Hime, Executive Director of the Midwest Bus and Motorcoach Association.

“It’s adversely affecting an industry [in a way] that I don’t think was intended,” Hime said, adding that the ordinance impacts more than half of the 44 members of the group she co-founded in 2011.

Along with the MBMCA, the Chicago Bus Coalition has the backing of the United Motorcoach Association and the American Bus Association. The coalition is expected to expand beyond the charter bus industry to restaurants and hotels, which also expect to feel the impact of the ordinance.

There are concerns that if the Chicago ordinance goes unchecked, it could be copied in other cities.

“As with many local issues, once we see them come up within one municipality or state, others may soon follow. So it is important that the industry—as part of the coalition—work to correct this now to create an appropriate model in the event other cities or states adopt similar ordinances in the future,” said Stacy Tetschner, UMA’s President and CEO.

In June, Chicago’s Emanuel unveiled two new initiatives to weed out illegal party buses: One is a partnership with Chicago police and the Secretary of State’s office so city investigators can pull up vehicle data. The second is a new task force to better monitor the industry.

“Party buses, like all of Chicago’s vast entertainment options, must support public safety, not work against it,” Emanuel said in a statement announcing the new initiatives. “With a new partnership with the Secretary of State and continued enforcement, we will build on our efforts throughout the summer to keep residents and visitors safe.”

Ibro Torlo, Vice President of Signature Transportation, agrees with the sentiment behind the law but says the ordinance is overkill for most of his business.

“If there’s liquor on the bus, which ninty-five percent of my trips don’t have, sure, you need a security guard,” Torlo said. “I’m moving corporate shuttles. I’m moving people to conventions.”

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