City officials have launched a bombshell investigation of yellow bus companies widely blamed for delays and no-shows that prompted more than 100,000 calls to agency help lines in the first weeks of the school year.
The companies that hold decades-old contracts to run the city’s $1.2 billion yellow bus system have in some cases been accused of links to organized crime families and corruption.
After the Daily New reported a series of service issues that subjected hundred of city families to hellish rides — and exposed a broken vetting system that permitted people with serious criminal histories to work on yellow buses — schools Chancellor Richard Carranza canned a top executive in charge of the system and vowed to take control.
Now Mayor de Blasio has launched an audit of the contracts that govern the massive yellow bus network, as well as an inquiry into accusations of wrongdoing.
De Blasio spokeswoman Jaclyn Rothenberg said the probe is being handled by the city’s Special Commissioner of Investigation.
The investigation is starting with a few of the contracts and it’s possible they’ll all be reviewed based on the findings, she explained.
News of the audit and probe rocked the bus industry, where dozens of closely related companies hold contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
De Blasio officials are still extending existing contracts with yellow bus companies for a month starting October 1 — simply because the city has no other way to get kids to school.
Contracts with companies for 6,600 routes — roughly 80% of the city’s 8,200 routes — will be granted emergency extensions to maintain service for roughly 150,000 students who depend on the rides, city officials said.
The yellow bus companies have been getting monthly extensions since June.
Among those that will be granted extensions is Jamaica-based Grandpa’s Bus Co., which saw four routes yanked by the city after dozens of parents reported late buses or no buses and incompetent drivers.
After the Daily News exposed the problems with routes operated by Grandpa’s and other yellow bus companies, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza fired a top executive in charge of student transportation and reassigned another to overhaul the longstanding agreements.
De Blasio administration labor spokesman Raul Contreras said the city is extending the contracts as they are, in order to ensure children can get to school.
“We will not leave our kids stranded,” Contreras said. “Existing contracts will continue to be extended to get our kids to school while we continue to improve our school bus system and hold bad actors accountable.”
The agreements set to expire are so-called legacy contracts with yellow bus operators that date back to 1979.
They have employee protections provisions that guarantee relatively steady wages for bus workers but have been the subject of repeated legal attacks.
After de Blasio officials attempted to include the protections in contracts put out to bid in December, a coalition of 17 bus companies sued to block the bidding, citing a 2011 ruling that declared them illegal.
Contreras said the city can’t overhaul the contracts until that latest legal attack on the provisions works thought the court system. The city holds that the protections are legal and city lawyers are fighting for them in court.
Grandpa’s spokesman Corey Muirhead said bus company officials are apologetic, and the company’s many great years are being shadowed by one bad year.
“Countless times, Grandpa’s has been the contractor who helped the city out when the city needed help,” Muirhead said. “Whether it be companies going out of business, or new work, Grandpa’s was there to get the children to school.”
Still, the contracting stall represents a significant stumbling block in the city’s efforts to overhaul the entrenched yellow-bus system.
Amid the first weeks of school, thousands of complaints poured in to city help lines as families reported buses that never showed up or arrived hours behind schedule.
After The News reported the story of Queens student Bertram Ford, who endured a four-hour ride to school that should’ve taken 35 minutes, de Blasio and Carranza vowed to take action.
Carranza quickly canned and replaced one top student-transportation official and reassigned another to tackle the yellow bus contracts exclusively.
Besides service problems, he also moved to overhaul vetting procedures for drivers and matrons after The News reported that people with serious criminal histories were given a green light to work on school buses.
But sources within the city’s Office of Pupil Transportation said that Carranza may be in for the fight of his career as he attempts to take on the city’s powerful school bus vendors, some of whom were reported to have ties to organized crime families.
In 2010, the CEO of a major bus company intimidated a top city school transportation official with a loaded pistol during contract negotiations. The official’s car was also vandalized around the same time.
Insiders who are familiar with the city’s vast, $1.2 billion system said Carranza, a transplant from the West who became chancellor in April, may have taken on too great a task.
“It’s impossible,” said one knowledgeable source who asked to remain anonymous. “They have no place to go, in terms of supply, because they can’t bid the contracts.”
Eric Reynolds, a retired NYPD detective who works as an investigator in the Office of Pupil Transportation, said the bus companies have so much clout they have influenced school officials to use potentially dangerous drivers amid a staffing shortage.