By Jon Gerberg
Fare increases. Route cuts. General frustration over life. In New York City, there is no shortage of reasons why bus drivers are targeted for assault — an average of 88 attacks every year in the nation's largest bus system.
Jose Rondon's 27-year career as a driver came to an abrupt end last summer at a stop in the Bronx, when a man punched him repeatedly without warning, breaking his nose and bloodying his face.
"He managed to pretty much pummel me," Rondon said. "No driver deserves that — no driver."
To protect its 12,000 drivers, the Metropolitan Transit Authority plans to upgrade buses with surveillance cameras and floor-to-ceiling partitions that separate operators from passengers. Officials say about a quarter of the 5,700-bus fleet has gotten the upgrades so far, which cost at least $2,000 per bus, and the MTA hopes to double that number by 2015.
But the bus operators' union says the MTA is dragging its heels, and even its projected installations are not enough.
"They have continued to view the assaults on bus operators as just the cost of doing business in New York City," said John Samuelsen, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 100.
"We share their frustration," said Stephen Vidal, vice president of transportation, safety and training for the MTA bus department. "We're actually trying to turn a fleet that had no barriers into a fleet with them. That's a big challenge. ... I wish we were further along than we are, but I think we're at a point now where we have a critical path."
The MTA says it has been keeping detailed data on assaults only since 2010, a date that drivers point out coincides with some of the MTA's most severe service cuts in decades. Thirty-six bus routes and 570 stops were eliminated, as well as 3 subway lines. Those cuts, drivers say, contributed to an increase in congestion, delays and tension among passengers.
Bus operators in New York work at all hours, in all neighborhoods, alone and often with little protection. One driver, Edwin Thomas, was stabbed to death in Brooklyn in 2008 after a disagreement with a passenger. Over the Fourth of July weekend, three operators were assaulted, two with knives.
In addition to assaults, MTA officials log 1,000 annual incidents of harassment — including verbal abuse and spitting. Female bus drivers, who make up a quarter of the city's bus operators, have complained of gender-based harassment.
While New York state law provides bus operators with a special "protected status," with assaults punishable by up to seven years in prison, there is little drivers can do to defend themselves against an aggressive passenger.
At an MTA board meeting last month, union members rallied on Madison Avenue as the board members upstairs pledged support for their employees.
"We're going to keep our thinking creatively and working as hard as we can to reach our ultimate goal — which is to have no employees assaulted while on the job," said Tom Prendergast, MTA chairman and CEO, "because an assault on any one of our employees is an assault on us all."
Frank Austin, chairman of the union's Bus Operator Action Committee, testified at the MTA board meeting about the need for action. "Your partitions are being installed like a Band-Aid to a gashing wound," he said.
They may come too late for Rondon, whose attacker was recently sentenced to five years' probation The 59-year-old Rondon ended up retiring after he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I felt that this could happen again, and I was wary of everything that was going on around me," he said. "You can't operate a bus that way."