A Trek Through Costa Rica: Part I: The Flight



Perry Farrell is on our plane from Portland to L.A.

In fact, we walk right alongside him and his two children and his very petite Asian wife all the way through the PDX International gate, and also the boarding tunnel (through which he carries his young, excitable child upon his shoulders while his wife carries a stroller) and into the plane, after which he and his brood settle into the first-class cabin and we are shuffled back to coach.

And then after we depart the plane in Los Angeles to await our connecting flight to Guatemala City, we can’t escape him. There he is in baggage claim next to us, horsing around and embracing his wife and chasing his kids and laughing the way one almost never does after an uneventful and surely routine flight. At which point my little brother Keifer (pretending he is taking a picture of my girlfriend) catches him on film, blurry in the background of his shot.

936full-perry-farrellMr. Farrell (image courtesy of listal.com

This is very cool of course. He is a celebrity. And personally vindicating to poor Keifer, as right off the bat, this event almost justifies the added trouble of the extra forty or so pounds of lenses, tripods and film that he has lugged along on this ostensibly stripped-down, month-long trek of Costa Rica. But it doesn’t stop the rest of his travelling companions (myself, my girlfriend Stacky, and my brother Chris) from  cruelly ribbing him about it.
Sometime during the following, interminable overnight flight from L.A. to Guatemala City and then to San Jose, a movie flickers into life on the monitors hanging above our seats. This movie is titled “Down with Love”, starring Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger.

Now, I cannot sleep on planes. Never have been able to. Maybe it’s just me, but something about having no control of whether I live or die – entrusting my life to a strange, exhausted pilot who is somehow maintaining 75 tons of airliner at an altitude of 35,000 feet above dark and jagged mountains – prevents me from drifting off into careless, baby-like slumber.

So, because it is the only activity to engage me in this dark tube of hurtling steel filled with lucky sleeping bastards, and because we have entered that peculiar suspension of time that occurs on long overnight flights and I need something with a definite running time to reassure me that this flight is progressing somehow,  I watch Messr. McGregor’s “Down with Love”.
The Best of Ewan McGregor - http://www.bestofewan.com/No. Down with THIS MOVIE. (image courtesy of fanpop.com)

After the credits roll, I mentally recite a short list of activities available to me that would have been preferable to sitting through “Down With Love”.  An abbreviated list follows:

1. Suffocating on the collected noxious emissions of the gastrically distressed fellow in front of me.
2. Punching a hole in the fuselage and being sucked out to free-fall gently into the Pacific.
3. You get the idea.

And I still cannot sleep.

Compared to the chaotic behemoth of L.A.X., the Guatemala City airport terminal, hunching low and blocky in the dim wilderness of 3 a.m Central America,  looks like a poorly lit gas station that we’ve pulled up to on an overnight bus trip.

We’ve landed in Guatemala City in the dead of night to pick up a few passengers and to let a sick and feverish man off the plane. The man slumped to the floor around halfway through the flight and the crew have been propping him up ever since. Through the dark filter of my sleepless delirium, the ordeal of the two flight attendants assigned to escort the poor man off the plane seems grim. They strain epically to drag the bulky fellow out of the side exit and finally manage to stumble down the stairs to the tarmac below.

With that bit of unpleasantness done, the crew passes around immigration and customs forms for everyone to sign as if nothing has happened. Then we sit in the dark on the tarmac for what feels like hours before taking off again. All I can do is stare out the window at the gas station lights.


Sleep has not come by the time dawn sees us flying over the Nicoya Peninsula. We immediately begin our descent. We have finally crossed the massive Lake Nicaragua (which is more like a sea) and passed rather dramatically into Costa Rica.

Now, intensely green forested mountains rise to the left of us, rolling down to deep shadowed valleys and impenetrable tree cover, while to the right, the Pacific glistens vast and green blue with white misty shores. It is breathtaking.view-costa-ricaI’m immediately cheered. Soon, I will sleep a long and needed sleep (I cast my red eyes upon my brothers and my girlfriend slumbering just next to and behind me – lucky bastards!) and then, my rest taken, it will be off to romp around this giant playground.



02.24.2011 – New York’s Asian Immigrants MIssing Social Services – CRAIN’S NEW YORK BUSINESS

NY’s Asian immigrants missing social services

The Asian-American communities in New York City have grown too quickly for social services to keep up, according to a new report released Thursday.

By Benjamin J. Spencer
Published: February 24, 2011 – 3:58 pm
A new report from a Chinatown nonprofit concludes that Asian-American communities in New York City have grown so fast over the past decade that their constituents no longer have adequate access to social services like health care and English-as-a-second-language programs.Asian Americans for Equality, a longtime booster of immigrant education and housing equality in the city, released the report Thursday. The research focused on nine neighborhoods throughout the city whose Asian-American populations totaled 25% or more. It found that although Asian-Americans represent over 12% of the metropolitan area’s population, Asian-American-led community groups receive only about 1% of the city’s social service contracts.“Asian-American communities have really grown beyond the traditional enclaves in New York”, said Douglas Nam Le, author of the report. “The question is, are they represented? Have the community boards kept up?”

Mr. Le said traditional Asian family structures favor economic cooperation among family members, and because of high rents and low wages, a large number of family members are often squeezed into the same house or apartment to cut costs. This distorts household income reports, he said. For his report, Mr. Le analyzed data from U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Surveys, conducted monthly from 2005-2009.

“The way that these social service contracts are set up sometimes excludes certain ethnicities,” Mr. Le said. He added that in many of the city’s Asian-American families, “even though there’s relative parity in household income, per capita income is lower than the neighborhood average.”

Mr. Le said he hopes the results of the 2010 Census, to be released later this year, will help spur more affordable housing and better social service access for the emerging and rapidly shifting groups, who often must travel far from their own neighborhoods to Flushing, Queens, or Manhattan’s Chinatown to obtain needed services.

“We get a lot of calls from the outer boroughs, like Brooklyn,” said Vanessa Leung, deputy director of the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families. Long travel times mean that “people probably are not going to seek preventative care from health clinics,” she said. “It’s an additional barrier, especially if they have to take time off work.”

The report also found many smaller Asian-American groups lacked access to English language instruction in their neighborhoods.

Kelly Magee, a spokeswoman for City Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who co-founded Asian Americans for Equality back in 1974 and represents the Chinatown district, issued a statement saying that, without basic ESL programs, immigrant “access to social services, jobs, and engagement with the wider political arena is limited.”

“Furthermore, as the makeup of traditional immigrant neighborhoods evolve, it is important for long-term residents to have the capacity and organization to influence such changes, not be victimized or further isolated by them,” the statement said.

Deep cuts in city social services due to the economic downturn have only worsened the isolation, said Linda Lee, an executive director of Korean Community Services of Metropolitan New York.

As one of the largest Korean-American social service groups in the city, the nonprofit runs an adult daycare center, two senior centers, a meals-on-wheels program and an ESL center. But Ms. Lee said a more than 30% cut in city funding last year led to a 100-person wait list for English language instruction.

“We try our best to accommodate the needs,” Ms. Lee said. “But it’s kind of difficult.”

01.11.2011 – City Officials Brace for Blizzard, the Sequel – CRAIN’S NEW YORK BUSINESS

City officials brace for blizzard, the sequel

Less than two weeks after a massive snow storm dumped 20 inches of powder on New York City and paralyzed most transportation, city officials are assuring residents that Tuesday night’s storm won’t be a repeat performance.

By Benjamin J. Spencer

Photo by Buck Ennis
The National Weather Service has forecast that Tuesday night’s winter storm may dump as much as 14 inches of fresh snow on the New York metro area by 4 p.m. Wednesday.
Published: January 11, 2011 – 3:48 pm
City transit officials said they were working hard to prevent stranded trains and buses in the metro area as another snow storm bears down on the East Coast, but they also counseled residents to be patient.“It will be a long night,” said Jay Walder, chief executive of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. He noted that morning express train service will likely face disruptions because several rescue, de-icer, blower and scraper trains will be stationed on available underground tracks.

The National Weather Service has forecast that Tuesday night’s winter storm may dump as much as 14 inches of fresh snow on the New York metro area by 4 p.m. Wednesday.

“It’s a tough storm because it’s coming in late,” said Helena Williams, president of the Long Island Rail Road.

The commissioners share one goal: avoiding stuck trains and suspending as few services as possible. But NYC Transit President Thomas Prendergast said a lot depends on the type of storm this front brings. Blowing or drifting snow and a heavy rate of accumulation on the third rail could affect trains’ ability to move along the electrified tracks and doom efforts to move stranded passengers with rescue trains, he said.

“In the 13-inch range, you may have to have suspensions,” he said.

Mr. Walder said that for this storm, the other agencies of MTA are setting up so-called “Incident Command Centers” where emergency storm efforts will be coordinated.

These command centers are put up specifically in the event of an extreme event or emergency, and will be “a focal point for every operating department” in the MTA, said spokesman Salvatore Arena.

The strategy is borrowed from a procedure LIRR has followed for about a year, Mr. Arena said. LIRR typically commandeers their agency president’s conference room for their center, but he doesn’t know exactly where the other agencies will set up theirs.

The MTA has also borrowed another LIRR program by installing a designated “customer advocate” in every agency’s Incident Command Center, said Mr. Prendergast.

“The advocate is not going to have direct communication with passengers on the train. They’re not miracle workers,” Mr. Arena said
Rather, the advocate’s job will be to coordinate efforts focused on stranded riders: providing supplies or food, attempting to reach passengers through outside workers, and making sure people are not attempting to exit the train into an unsafe situation.

“They didn’t have that in a formal way before,” Mr. Arena said.

For the Long Island Rail Road, Ms. Williams said diesel engines will be standing by to assist stuck trains, and the rail road will also station 50 workers at the busy Jamaica, Queens, interchange. Overall, 600 LIRR employees are slated to work through the storm. “We’ve had a great response from employees for this one,” Ms. Williams said.

Also on Tuesday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the city would inform parents of school closures by 5 a.m. Wednesday through the 311 hotline and on city websites. He cautioned of a difficult commute on Wednesday and told residents, “Do not drive if you can help it.”

In the wake of the post-Christmas blizzard that dumped upward of 20 inches on the city and paralyzed most transportation, Mr. Bloomberg on Monday laid out a 15-point plan for handling future snowstorms. The plan included several new measures designed to prevent many of the communication and emergency system problems that hampered efforts during the last storm. Mr. Bloomberg dismissed any notion that the city may have resisted buying necessary equipment because of budget cuts.

He also countered charges of a lack of empathy and availability during the storm. “When things go wrong, you can never have enough empathy,” he said. “We didn’t do as good a job as we should have.”

In response to complaints about his being on vacation, he responded: “The mayor is in charge, and the mayor is in charge all the time,” he said. “I am not in every conference call, and I shouldn’t be.”

When pressed to detail what he himself could have done differently to deal with the last storm, Mr. Bloomberg brushed off the question. “Should have, would have and could have, I don’t know,” he said. “Next question.”

The expected snowstorm forced the postponement of the City Council’s oversight hearing on Walmart scheduled for Wednesday afternoon. It was rescheduled for Feb. 3 at 1 p.m. Opponents of Walmart’s entry into the city have also called off a rally they had scheduled for Wednesday.

12.15.2010 – A Jersey City “High Line”? – Video Documentary – DOLLARS & SENSE

A Jersey City “High Line Park”?

produced, written, shot and edited by Benjamin J Spencer

12.15.2010 – Neighborhood vs. Developer: Fight Rages over Proposed Jersey City “High Line” – DOLLARS & SENSE

Neighborhood vs. Developer: Fight Continues over Proposed Jersey City “High Line”

Dec 15th, 2010 | Category: Boroughs and Beyond

By Benjamin J Spencer
JERSEY CITY, N.J. – The Pennsylvania Railroad is the stuff of legend, and the High Line Park has become downright famous.
Chances are, though, most New Yorkers have never heard of a closely related piece of rail history – the Embankment, directly across the Hudson from Greenwich Village in Jersey City. But if Stephen Gucciardo has his way, this 100-foot wide, half-mile-long segmented stone wall will soon earn its rightful respect as a historic landmark – and more.

“I’m talking about the possibility of open space, the possibility of a greenway, the possibility of light rail,” says Gucciardo, a director of the Embankment Preservation Coalition, a neighborhood-based nonprofit that, along with Jersey City and the Rails to Trails Conservancy, wants to preserve the elevated former train trestle.

But the current owner of the Embankment, Steve Hyman, is not about to let his wife’s highly valuable property go without a fight. The city and the non-profits “committed fraud,” he says.

The city of Jersey City has offered several times since the sale to buy the property from Hyman, most recently for around $7.7 million, according to records. But Hyman says he’s not selling and maintains the land is worth more than the city has. The two sides have been involved in an increasingly bitter federal court and city zoning battle since 2005, when previous owner, Conrail, sold the Embankment to Hyman’s wife, Victoria. The total price was $3 million.

How bitter has the fight become? On National Make a Difference Day (October 23rd), the coalition organizers put together a volunteer force to weed and remove unsightly trash from the Sixth Street side of the walls. Hyman ordered coordinator Suzy Winkler and her team to stay off the property, They did.

Nevertheless, the same day, in a Jersey Journal blog, Hyman restated his warning against trespass and added, “I think that the walls are ugly and are (a) blight on the neighborhood but I think that the weeds are beautiful. … Suzy Winkler please do not let anyone remove the weeds from the Embankment properties because they have AESTHETIC VALUE to me. Thanks, Steve Hyman.”

In an interview, Hyman said the state and city “could find anything historic as long as it doesn’t cost them anything. They could find this table historic.” Asked if he believed the city’s plans, he sighed and shook his head. “It is definitely a lie on Healy’s part to say they want light rail. Nobody’s going to build anything on a decaying property.”

The Embankment has become one of the most fought-over pieces of real estate in the area’s history.

Standing like a fortress bulwark along Sixth Street and topped with an overgrown riot of young trees and tangled brush, it makes for a dramatic divider between the stately brownstone serenity of the historic Hamilton Park neighborhood and Jersey City’s increasingly bustling downtown.

At its western border of Brunswick Street, it is imposing – more than 35 feet high, according to the Jersey City Landmarks Commission, with neat sandstone masonry blocks that appear structurally intact for all their age. But at the easternmost block, the stones on either side begin to look more like a patchwork of different geologic material, and packed earthen fill has spilled out from crumbling walls like foam from a stuffed animal.

The Harsimus Branch Embankment was built from 1901-1905 by the Pennsylvania Railroad in order to bring seven lines of rail freight down to the vast coal yards and stockyards on the Hudson waterfront After redevelopment on the waterfront, though, the rail line was cut off from barge routes, and eventually abandoned.

In 1996, owner Conrail (a railroad consolidation company) removed all trestles, bridges and infrastructur, then put the property up for sale.

“There were rumors about knocking it down and developing it with town homes,” says Stephen Gucciardo. The coalition formed “spontaneously,” he said, out of neighborhood meetings about preserving the property. The movement took off from there.

“This is no longer just a neighborhood issue. It’s become a regional issue,” said Gucciardo.

The coalition has partnered with several non-profits, including the East Coast Greenway Alliance, an effort to build a walking and biking route from Florida to Maine. Mike Ovila, the group’s Mid-Atlantic regional director, said the Embankment has been part of the planned route for almost 10 years.

“The railroads really shaped this town,” said Gucciardo. “The people who worked in this area worked on the railroads. The culture built up around the railroads. I personally think this structure is significant because it will teach people going forward what the history of this area was like nothing else will.”


At one point during arguments in front of the Sept. 30th special session of the Jersey City Zoning Board of Adjustment, Michelle Donato sighed in apparent exasperation. She is the main lawyer representing Hyman in his efforts to obtain a certificate of economic hardship from the board – a provision that allows the owner of a commercial property to go ahead with development if it is not making at least a 12 percent annual net return on investment.

Months before, the board had thrown out one of Hyman’s hardship applications, but he appealed to a state court, where the judge found he had not been given a full hearing.

Now, at the new hearing, Donato and the coalition’s lawyer, Janine Bauer, stood in front of the board. A team of architects and expert witnesses sat with Hyman in the first rows. For three hours both sides had been arguing about the definition of what, exactly, constituted a “commercial” property.

“She is attacking the powers and duties of the Historic Preservation Commission,” Bauer told the board, gesturing to Donato.

Donato shook her head. Her voice rose. “You cannot take the property because you think it is historic,” she said. “You cannot take the property because you think it would make a good transportation route. I know this is Jersey City, but it is still the United States of America.”

In the second row, Hyman nodded. “They want to allow us to build on only one parcel of the land that we own,” said his wife, Victoria, to me. “How is that fair?”

While the hearings drag on, the two sides have been waging a separate, higher-stakes battle in federal court over Conrail’s sale of the property. This fight began in 2007, when the city and the nonprofits argued that the original sale to Hyman’s wife was invalid because Conrail did not file an application of rail property abandonment to a federal regulatory agency, the Surface Transportation Board, and did not offer Jersey City a required 90-day “right of refusal.”

The federal board found for the city and the non-profits and declared the sale invalid.

Hyman then went to the federal district court, which threw out the board’s ruling, saying the board did not have jurisdiction over the Harsimus Branch. The city and non-profits are now appealing to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which has jurisdiction over federal regulatory agencies.

The city and groups asked the District Court to clarify that the board had jurisdiction over the Embankment, but Judge Ricardo Urbina rejected that. He also found the city had no legal standing to challenge the sale. In the 31-page ruling, he sided with Conrail’s assertion that the Harsimus Branch was not a main line and it was under no obligation to file an abandonment application (Conrail representatives declined to comment on ongoing litigation).

Urbina also pointed out that Conrail had already sold “over 90 percent” of the Harsimus Branch to several private developers by the time the state designated the Embankment a historic site in 1999, and the city and board had not objected.

Urbina further found that Conrail had attempted to sell the Embankment to the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency in 1999, 2001 and 2002 and that the agency had refused to bid. The city also had fought the Embankment’s state historic designation in 1999.

“The city probably had 10 chances to buy the Embankment,” Hyman told me. “I offered it to them myself. They were looking to buy time and wear me out.”

Hyman believes Jersey City is only harming itself by siding with the nonprofits to overturn his ownership.

The city is in financial trouble and taxable residential properties could bring in funds and raise the blocks’ value, he said. If the zoning board wants “to do what’s best for the city, then they should find for me,” he said. “To take this property off the tax rolls in this economy …” He shrugged.

City Councilman Steve Fulop, who represents the area that includes the Embankment, said in an email that he could not comment on the legal case or the federal appeal, but that he supports preserving the Embankment and thinks it will provide “a tremendous positive” to the neighborhood.

“The open space plan can create a unique world-class park stimulating more streetscape activity,” Fulop wrote. Told that Hyman’s appraisers had estimated the property’s value in excess of $25 million, Fulop wrote, “I do not agree with him on that price, and while I appreciate his input, the city budget should not be his concern as he is not a resident.” (Hyman is a resident of Manhattan).

Fulop said the many residents and businesses he’d talked to near the Embankment were “generally supportive of open space.” He added that he hoped a compromise might be possible.

Gucciardo said the coalition has always been open to compromise with Hyman, but said the developer’s plans seemed excessive.

“There are historic preservation guidelines,” he said. “You don’t get to just build houses on top of historic landmarks.”

Gucciardo said the coalition will remain focused on open space. “We think this is worth fighting for,” he said.

Hyman calls the coalition’s compromise proposals “selfish and unreasonable.”

“This is like a play toy to them. It’s become a cause célèbre for them. Something to accomplish,” he said of the coalition. “If you think it’s historic and you want it, pay for it.”

5.12.2010 – For Budget Buses, Chinatown’s Clogged Streets are Wide Open – GOTHAM GAZETTE

For Budget Buses, Chinatown’s Clogged Streets Are Wide Open

by Benjamin J Spencer
12 May 2010

Photo (cc) 2010 Adam E. Moreira

Around the clock, in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, crowds fill the narrow Chinatown sidewalks waiting to board buses run bycompanies such as Double Happiness, Fung Wah and Lucky Star. For as little as $15, these buses take budget-conscious riders toPhiladelphia, Boston or Washington, D.C.

Critics of the buses say while they might benefit riders’ pocketbooks, they put a burden on residents and businesses near the stops,polluting the air and crowding the streets and sidewalks.

“The cheap service is only possible by the very fact the bus companies that profit off of this don’t have to pay for the problemscaused,” said Community Board 3 member Thomas Yu.

Yu, co-chair of the Chinatown Working Group and chair of the board’s Parks,Recreation, Cultural Affairs and Waterfront Committee, blames the buses for clogging traffic, blocking truck and pedestrian business and worsening already high air pollution levels.  “The residents pay for that cost while the bus company keeps the profits,” he said.

As residents and merchants complain, the city has few tools to regulate the buses and keep them from clogging the already congested area.

A New Phenomenon

Down through lower Canal and Allen Streets, passengers assemble on sidewalks on nearly every block. It was not always this way.

The phenomenon of Chinatown buses goes back only to 2001, when according to its website, Fung Wah began a van shuttle service for restaurant and other low-wage Chinatown workers in Manhattan and Queens. Over the years, the company added service to Providence and Boston, employing large coach-style diesel buses to meet the growing demand.

As budget travelers from all over the East Coast caught on to the low cost and convenience afforded by the buses, other companies sprang up. Bus routes now range as far south as Atlanta and as far north as Portland, Maine. The main hub continues to be Manhattan’s Chinatown. But many say the business has expanded faster than Chinatown’s capacity to handle.

Congestion and Air Pollution

A recent visit to the corner of Allen and Hester streets found 60-passenger interstate buses taking up four metered parking spots while loading and unloading for periods of 15 minutes and more. Others pulled into Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus stops or stopped to unload in an active traffic lane, creating congestion on the narrow, crowded roads.

Every time a bus idles or circles the block it burns diesel fuel that releases dust, smoke and fine particles into the air. The federal Environmental Protection Agency classifies these particles — known as PM2.5 — as harmful pollutants because they are small enough to inhale directly into the human lungs, causing respiratory problems and long-term side effects.

The federal agency found that particulate pollution has long been the leading factor in air pollution in New York City, with smog, or ground-level ozone, a distant second. In 2008, fine particulate matter was the main pollutant in Manhattan on 251 of the 336 days when air quality was tracked, according to the EPA Air Quality Index.

In Chinatown, the site of heavy truck and bus traffic moving over three bridges, some of those particles likely come from diesel emissions. According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Chinatown has one of the highest rates of fine particulate matter concentration in the five boroughs.

Continuing Health Problems

Asthma, often linked to particulate pollution, is a major health problem in Chinatown. According to the 2007 Community Health Survey conducted by the city, 6.4 percent of respondents in lower Manhattan reported having asthma attack or episode during the year, the second highest rate in Manhattan (after Central Harlem).

These numbers don’t surprise Mae Lee, the executive director of the Chinatown Progressive Association, a non-profit agency providing free services and promoting health justice for immigrants. Residents are so concerned, she said, that the association is now gearing up to conduct its second community-wide asthma survey. The first survey, made in 2002, found that one in five households reported a family member with asthma symptoms.

Jennifer Long, a volunteer spearheading the new survey, hopes it will help draw attention to traffic congestion on Chinatown streets.

“There will be a section on idling buses” she said, “and in this survey, there will be a link to diesel pollution.”

The effects of diesel exhaust on human health are multi-faceted, said Stephen Markowitz, an epidemiologist and professor of occupational medicine at Queens College’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science.

“Diesel exhaust … does cause cancer, and in the shorter term it is associated with asthma and other respiratory diseases,” he said. Moving buses, he continued, pose less of a threat to human health than idling buses, because idling buses “produce higher concentrations” of fine diesel particulates.

“It’s preposterous that buses should be sitting there idling.” Markowitz said.

A Regulatory Maze

Requiring ultra low sulfur diesel fuel and particle filters on engines — restrictions already in place in New York City for some vehicles — might help alleviate the worst effects of diesel pollution. A 2005 report by the non-profit law and science group Clean Air Task Force found that these technologies can reduce toxic diesel particles released into the atmosphere “by up to 90 percent.”

But the group said existing federal clean diesel regulations only extend to engines manufactured after 2007. This leaves out diesel vehicles already on the road, which includes interstate Chinatown buses.

And while all interstate buses larger than 10,000 pounds and carrying more than nine passengers are required to obtain operating permits from the federal government, the reality is that national Clean Air guidelines are enforced by individual states, with varying degrees of effectiveness.

Joe Ionnati of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation said that the city and state have passed laws regulating diesel engines, but that the laws do not apply to the private interstate buses.

According to Ionnati, the ambiguous status of interstate buses also creates problems for state emissions enforcement. All heavy-duty diesel trucks and buses registered in New York must submit to yearly emissions and safety tests. But many Chinatown buses, subcontracted from various carriers, are not registered in New York.

Ionnati said the best enforcement tool city environmental officers have is the power to do out on-the-spot roadside emissions inspections that carry a fine of $700 or more per offense.

“If it’s 8,500 pounds in weight and it’s diesel, it can be pulled over,” Ionnati said. “If you had a truck or a bus coming from Canada and it’s smoking, it can be pulled over.”

He was not sure, though, how widely these inspections have been used in New York City.

The city and state environmental conservation department used roadside inspections to target heavy trucks and buses in East Harlem during a crackdown on visible exhaust in 2007.

But both Long and Lee of the Chinatown Progressive Association said these tactics would encounter obstacles in the more heavily crowded and densely populated neighborhoods of Chinatown.

“You have to make the public want it,” said Lee, “especially since these buses are extremely popular.” More enforcement would have to go hand in hand with what she termed “a solution that’s culturally acceptable to the community.”

To limit pollution, the city does bar engines from idling for more than three minutes.

Leo Lee, a manager at Apex/Universe Bus, said the city’s enforcement of this rule goes overboard. His buses are routinely targeted by police for illegal idling while unloading passengers at the company’s 13 Allen Street terminal, even though the company provides an indoor waiting room for riders.

“If any police go by they give us a ticket,” Lee said. “If the driver doesn’t speak English, you get an extra ticket.”

The Problem of Space

Rising demand and tough competition force operators to load customers where they can. On a recent day, Fung Wah’s front curb on Canal Street was lined with steel police barriers as a result of police department efforts to keep Manhattan Bridge traffic routes clear. Undaunted, the Fung Wah buses simply pulled around the corner to the Bowery and loaded customers at the first available space past the barriers.

Some businesses around the stops complain about buses and crowds of riders that block their storefronts.

“Business is very slow and people cannot park sometimes because of the buses,” said an attendant at a wall and floor-covering store who asked to remain unnamed.

Many residents and businesses would like to see the city regulate more closely where buses can load and unload. But with so many buses using the same small area of Chinatown — up to 291 arrivals and departures a day, according to 2009 study conducted by the Department of City Planning — there simply is not enough curb space to meet the demand.

At the same time, there is a maze of conflicting regulations. City law dictates that operators who use spaces not specifically designated for bus loading are breaking the law and can be ticketed.  Accordingly, a signed and designated bus layover stop did exist until recently at 88 East Broadway, but the police department put up barricades and closed it down.  Calls and emails to the NYPD precinct seeking explanation were unreturned.

In 2007, the mayor’s Community Affairs Unit attempted to find new spaces to relocate the buses, the study said, but “none of the recommended sites have proven to be feasible.”  Private bus companies may use city bus stops to quickly unload passengers, but it is “illegal to wait, layover or park in a bus stop,” and many Chinatown bus operators have abused their privilege, the study notes.

The planning department concluded that unless a permanent solution can be found, bus operators will be forced to continue negotiating on a daily basis with the local police to find temporary curbside space to load and unload.

Lee said that his company has repeatedly applied to the city Department of Transportation for a permanent loading space and received no response.

“We’re trying to make it convenient for the people of Chinatown to get places. I just don’t understand why we don’t get a space to load customers.” Lee said.

Managers for Fung Wah and Lucky Star, two of the most established bus companies in Chinatown, told the same story: repeated requests for loading space and no answer from the city.

Transportation department spokeswoman Suchi Sanagavarapu said the department “can allocate a permit right now” on an individual company basis. But there is no overall system in place to determine who gets permits, and with so many companies applying, no way to make everyone happy.

That is why, said Colleen Chattergoon, another transportation department spokeswoman, the department “has been deferring to the community boards and referring all requests to them.”

Similar problems tie the community board’s hands, said Community Board 3 transportation and safety chair David Crane. Without criteria for determining which companies deserve a piece of Chinatown’s limited curb space, he said, the board’s now simply denies all requests.

Lucky Star desk agent Ken Huang said he doubts the city will ever be able to find a solution.” There are a lot of bus companies in Chinatown and I don’t think they can give everyone a space,” he said. Further he does not see signs that the city is trying.

“I don’t think they really approve of us,” Huang said.

Solutions to the Gridlock

The city, though, does seem to be getting more involved. In response to rising resident complaints, several city agencies, including the city transportation department, are conducting studies to find solutions to the problems created by congestion and unregulated curbside loading.

In its study, the Department of City Planning recommended the transportation department auction off curb space. At a Community Board 3’s transportation and safety committee meeting in March, Crane called such a plan “doable” and told the board that it would “solve a lot of problems.”

Now, Crane said, some bus companies change their corporate names in order to avoid burdensome federal safety. This, Crane said, wouldn’t happen if companies were tied to a city-enforced permit.

A new permitting scheme would need to clear several hurdles, though, including approval the state legislature in Albany.

Meanwhile, some bus companies continue to petition for their own spaces. At the March community board meeting, Double Happiness Travel appealed for two passenger pick-up and drop-off locations on Pike Street. The board rejected the request unanimously.

“There’s no way for us to do this fairly,” Crane told company spokesman Teddy Gonzales. “You’re the fourth company in a year to petition for these spaces.”

When Gonzales expressed frustration, District Manager Susan Stetzer urged him to keep lobbying city and state officials to take action on the planning department’s recommendations.

State Sen. Daniel Squadron, whose district includes part of Chinatown, has started to looking into drafting a law, said his community liaison Rosemary Diaz, but with plenty of other issues taking up Albany’s time right now, the process may go forward slowly. Nonetheless, Diaz said more bus regulation is needed.

“They’re contributing to an area with one of the highest asthma rates in the city,” Diaz said.