Jitneys attracting riders, rivals on
A minibus company that began as an informal service catering to immigrants in Passaic County now carries more commuters between Paterson and New York than NJ Transit.
While critics have scoffed at the worn-out appearance of some minibuses, riders praise the Spanish Transportation company for its inexpensive and frequent service.
Even state transportation officials acknowledged that Spanish Transportation has evolved into an essential commuter service for a growing region that demands more mass transit than the state can supply.
"Our elected officials have realized the services we provide to the cities are a necessity," said Norberto Curitomai, the founder and president of Spanish Transportation. "We provide a quality public transportation, at lower rates that is maybe not provided by New Jersey Transit."
As minibuses gained riders, NJ Transit once considered using its own small vans to compete with the smaller companies, said James P. Redeker, an NJ Transit assistant executive director. But the business did not match the agency's strengths.
"I don't see New Jersey Transit interested in setting up its own jitney operation to compete with the likes of Spanish," Redeker said. "They do it and do it well."
Now Curitomai, who once enjoyed a near-monopoly in Paterson, has gone on the offensive to outpace rival van companies, showing how serious the competition has become in Passaic and Bergen counties.
Spanish Transportation has cultivated ties to elected officials, installed cameras in some buses and employed off-duty police officers to monitor stops for idling buses that cause congestion. For his latest flourish, Curitomai traveled almost 8,000 miles.
"I am the first one to take delivery from China," he said as workers in his South Paterson garage prepared an American chassis that will be paired with a Chinese bus body.
With 27 seats, the new buses are larger than most minibuses, or jitneys, as they are often called. The side mirrors crane out and down from the roof, like the trunk of an elephant. Seats shift laterally to give passengers more room.
The new buses are a major leap for a small businessman who purchased his first bus 15 years ago for $2,500 and once performed virtually every task for his company -- driver, mechanic, dispatcher and manager.
"So much of the time we're judged by how we look," said Robert Calcagno, a Passaic County investigator who moonlights as a defensive-driving instructor and political liaison for Curitomai. "These buses will be flashy and brand-new, and they'll make us better compete for the market that wants a few more creature comforts."
Curitomai, 49, did not pioneer the use of jitneys, but he is credited with introducing them to Paterson at the right time. In the early 1990s, as the city welcomed thousands of new Hispanic immigrants, he noticed that NJ Transit's buses were full.
Curitomai set his fares at least 50 cents lower than NJ Transit's and pumped Spanish-language music through the speakers. He ramped up service quickly, adding dozens of buses and increasing the service frequency to every 7 or 8 minutes.
"People felt like they were among friends and family when they went into the buses," said German Zerpa Jr., an operator whose father was one of Curitomai's first drivers.
Curitomai started with local routes, but he quickly focused on interstate service. His vans travel Route 4 to New York's George Washington Bridge Bus Station and zip along Route 3 to midtown Manhattan.
Curitomai's drivers make express trips in about 45 minutes -- compared with an hour or more on NJ Transit's long, winding circuits. His buses carry an estimated 30,000 daily passenger trips, Curitomai said.
Yet his success hasn't hurt NJ Transit's Paterson business. The state agency's revenue grew 18 percent between 2002 and 2006.
Spanish Transportation "has significant ridership and runs a service that clearly meets the needs of a marketplace," Redeker said. "By the same token, we are established and have a market that is solid and growing in Paterson."
Even so, jitneys are not universally admired.
Some city officials have attacked them for causing congestion and ignoring traffic laws. Others complain that they look like ramshackle castaways, reclaimed for the purpose of providing $1 trips around Paterson.
In 2004, Vera Ames, a Paterson City Council member, called the buses "cockroaches." A month later, Curitomai and 100 drivers showed up at City Hall to tell Ames how offended they were.
"There is a built-in bias, and part of that is exacerbated by the fact there are multiple companies that are very similar in scope to Spanish but not nearly as well-organized," Calcagno said.
Curitomai, who wears the short-sleeved, button-up shirts that recall a bus driver's crisp uniform, portrays some of his competitors as pirates.
One company painted its buses to look like his white- and green-striped vans, which are labeled "Express Service."
"They used our logo and the accident claims came to us!" said Curitomai, whose attorney said he obtained a restraining order against the competitor.
With so many jitneys on the streets, police officials have a hard time distinguishing between companies.
The buses bunch up near bus stops, and drivers sometimes jockey for the same passengers.
"Norberto is doing everything he can," said Lt. Patrick Papagni, a former commander of the Paterson Police Department's traffic unit.
"If you go into how does the P.D. feel about these buses in Paterson, it's just that there are so many that they cause traffic hazards and delays."
Curitomai acknowledged that his drivers are not perfect, but said the worst violators -- drivers who stop in the middle of the street for passengers, rather than at bus stops -- work for his rivals.
According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Spanish Transportation's record is better than the national average. It had one injury accident in the past two years, records show. The number of drivers and vehicles that failed inspections was below the national average.
A competitive edge
But competition has taken a toll. Walter Becerra, a longtime friend of Curitomai's who has driven for him since 1994, said drivers now earn about half of what they made six years ago. There are more buses competing for fares, he said, and the price of gas, oil and parts also have increased.
Many drivers work six days a week and drive as much as eight hours a day, said Becerra, who, like many drivers, owns his buses but gets insurance through Curitomai.
Curitomai agreed the business can be difficult -- for him, too. He said some drivers have earned more money in a year than he has.
But his trips to China opened a new horizon. His company is building buses now, not just operating them. He plans to sell them to other American companies. A Chinese bus costs as much as $50,000 less than a U.S.-made vehicle, he said.
"With the price they have and the quality they have [in China], they will compete with the U.S.-made buses and will have a big impact in the bus industry," Curitomai said.
Spanish Transportation is finishing about 10 buses that will hit the streets in the next six months.
Paterson Mayor Jose "Joey" Torres, who has occasionally said there are too many private buses in his city, praised Curitomai's enterprise.
"He came here with a dream and turned it into something of value," Torres said, "which is the American way."
Staff Writer Monsy Alvarado contributed to this article.