Chicago party bus ordinance angers operators

CHICAGO – A city of Chicago ordinance designed to crack down on illegal party buses has been causing headaches for legal motorcoach operators.

In their zeal to rid the city of unlicensed party bus operators and rein in an increase in violent incidents caused by their passengers, law enforcement agencies have been ticketing even law-abiding operators, often for bogus violations that routinely are overturned in court.

“City officials said they were not going after good operators, yet we were tagged for five violations,” said Carl Ekberg, vice president and chief operating officer of Chicago Classic Coach.

Ekberg said the officers claimed the bus wasn’t USDOT-certified, “even though our USDOT numbers are all over the bus.” They also cited the company for not displaying emblems that weren’t legally required and for not having a Chicago charter license, which isn’t required because the company is based in a suburb, not in the city.

“We got out of four of the tickets, but I have to go back to court in January on the other one,” Ekberg said.

One of the most controversial elements of the ordinance requires buses to have a licensed security guard and cameras on board if there are more than 15 passengers and if there is alcohol on the bus, or if the bus plans to make multiple stops at venues where alcohol is consumed.

The problem is that alcohol isn’t just sold in bars and nightclubs, but also at museums, theaters, hotels and airports. That means if a charter bus were transporting a student group to museums that sell alcohol, the bus would be required to have a guard and security cameras that can monitor the interior of the bus.

Ekberg said that if one of his buses picked up the Little Sisters of the Poor at a hotel and then stopped at another hotel to pick up the pope, “I’d need a security guard and a camera on board just because the hotels serve alcohol. If you stop at multiple locations, they consider you to be a bar crawl.”

Some city officials appear to realize that the regulations are excessive or have unintended consequences. At a recent city meeting with industry representatives, operators asked if a bus taking a senior group to the theater would need a guard since the passengers are not big drinkers or troublemakers.

A Chicago official responded that the city wouldn’t enforce the regulation in that case because “they know you are the good operators.”

But another official contradicted that remark, saying, “If we are checking buses at the theater and you are there, we cannot turn our head. We would check you and ticket you for no guard or camera.”

Operators attending the meeting said the regulations were sending a message that it wasn’t safe to ride charter buses in Chicago. They said that if their companies stopped offering such trips, several businesses in the city could be destroyed.

They suggested that the city compile a list of locations that would be exempt from the regulations, such as museums, theaters and hotels, and that guards only be required when alcohol is being consumed on the buses.

Ekberg said the real problem is with gang members chartering party buses, getting drunk and having shoot-outs. Eleven shootings, including three homicides, have been connected to party buses over the past two years in Chicago.

“I understand what the city is trying to accomplish, but they did it without talking to anyone in the industry,” Ekberg said. “This regulation is like using a sledgehammer to drive a carpet tack. It is a steaming turd on a plate that they don’t know what to do with.”

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