NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — In what’s being called the “largest single safety crackdown” of the motor coach industry, federal officials have shut down 26 bus operations that transport more than 1,800 passengers a day along Interstate 95 from New York to Florida for safety violations.

1010 WINS’ Steve Sandberg reports

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“If you cut corners, if you put profit ahead of passenger safety, you’re going to get caught and you’re going to be shut down,” Sen. Chuck Schumer said at a news conference.

News of the sweep was announced Thursday by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Declaring the bus operations “imminent hazards to public safety,” federal officials closed down companies based in six states: Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, New York, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Most of the 233 bus routes serviced by the companies either left from or ended in Chinatown.

“These aggressive enforcement actions against unsafe bus companies send a clear signal: If you put passengers’ safety at risk, we will shut you down,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.

The shutdowns are a result of a year-long investigation by federal officials of three main companies: New York-based Apex Bus Inc. and I-95 Coach Inc. and Philadelphia-based New Century Travel Inc.

WCBS 880’s Marla Diamond reports

Each of the three companies oversaw a broad network of other bus companies, officials said. The other bus operations targeted in the crackdown were companies that were affiliated with one of the three primary companies but have other names.

Investigators found that all of the companies had multiple safety violations, including operating buses that had not been regularly repaired or inspected and repeatedly using drivers who did not have valid commercial driver’s licenses, officials said.

“The egregious acts of these carriers put the unsuspecting public at risk, and they must be removed from our highways immediately,” said FMCSA Administrator Anne S. Ferro in a statement. “We are putting every unsafe bus and truck company on notice to follow the safety laws or be shut down.”

Safety officials have long complained that their attempts to put unsafe bus operators out of business are frequently thwarted by “reincarnated carriers” that simply reopen for business under a different name or in a different location, or that transfer their buses to an affiliated company that shares similar ownership.

Buses belonging to such rogue companies are known in the industry as “ghost” buses because they are frequently painted white with relatively little decoration to make it easier to repaint them with a new company name.

Wednesday’s shutdowns applied to nine active bus companies; 13 bus companies that had lost permission to operate but were continuing to operate anyway; three companies that were in the process of applying to the government for operating authority; and a bus ticket seller.

In addition, 10 individual bus company owners, managers and employees were ordered to stop selling tickets and transporting passengers, the Transportation Department said.

Thursday afternoon, customers arriving at the closed companies’ offices in Chinatown were surprised by the news.

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“They’re all closed. They just say no buses for Philly,” said Tamara from Astoria, who had arrived at the I-95 Coach Inc. office on Chrystie Street to catch a bus to Philadelphia. “Yesterday, everything was still on the website but today, there’s no schedule.”

The metal doors were pulled down at Apex Bus Inc.’s Chinatown office with a small sign that read “No Buses” and “Closed Down.”

Metal doors pulled down at Apex Bus Inc.’s Chinatown office with a small sign that reads “No Buses” on Thursday, May 31, 2012 (credit: Marla Diamond/WCBS 880)

Officials began their investigation after a series of deadly bus crashes last year, many of which that were along I-95.

On March 12, 2011, 15 people were killed in the Bronx when a tour bus headed to Chinatown from a casino in Connecticut overturned and slammed into a poll, peeling off its roof.

The driver of the bus, Ophadell Williams, pleaded not guilty to manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide charges.

It was after that accident that Sen. Schumer spearheaded the effort for new legislation.

“One of the first people to call me was Sen. Schumer about his concern about these companies whether they were legitimate, whether they should be shut down,” Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said.

Four people were killed in May of 2011 when a Sky Express operated bus returning to Chinatown from North Carolina swerved off the road and overturned on I-95 in Virginia.

The driver of that bus, 37-year-old Kin Yiu Cheung, admitted to police that he fell asleep at the wheel, according to court documents.

After the crash, federal officials shut down Sky Express for multiple safety violations.

Then in June, police said a bus carrying tourists headed to Flushing, Queens, rear-ended a flatbed tractor-trailer on the Pennsylvania Turnpike killing the bus driver and injuring nearly two dozen passengers.

Then in July, one person was killed and 30 injured in a crash in Waterloo when a New York City-bound Farr’s Coach Lines bus was pulling onto Interstate 90 when it was hit in the rear by a tractor-trailer. Both vehicles burst into flames.

On August 3, 2011, a charter bus headed to Trenton from upstate New York was going too fast when it crashed and flipped over. Thirty people were hurt including a woman who was pinned underneath the bus.

The motor coach industry transports more than 700 million passengers a year in the U.S., roughly the same as the domestic airlines.

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