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Chicago tightens the regulatory leash on party buses — again

A party bus parked on North Orleans Street.

A party bus parked on North Orleans Street. | Sun-Times file photo

Thirty-two more citations and two more “cease and desist” orders were issued last weekend to party bus operators accused of violating year-old rules aimed at reining in rowdyism and violence.

But City Hall isn’t done trying to prevent those buses from becoming what one alderman once described as “rolling cemeteries.”

The Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection has hammered out an intergovernmental agreement with the Illinois Secretary of State’s office aimed at bolstering the city’s capacity to crack the whip against illegal and irresponsible party bus operators.

The agreement will empower 10 city investigators instead of the current five to look up vehicle licenses plates, vehicle identification numbers and drivers license numbers maintained by Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White in “real time.”

Enforcement will be further enhanced by giving those 10 designated city investigators expanded access to so-called “driver abstracts.”

Abstracts are a three-year record of all moving violation convictions, accident involvement reports and other actions that trigger drivers license “suspensions, revocations or other disqualifications.”

That will allow city investigators to determine whether party bus operators have a valid commercial drivers license passenger endorsement, which is required to operate a party bus.

The intergovernmental agreement will also create a Party Bus Safety Task Force with representatives from the Chicago Police Department, the Secretary of State’s Office, the Illinois  Department of Transportation and the Illinois State Police.

The task force will meet twice a year — and more frequently when problems occur — to identify legal loopholes and share enforcement information about party bus operators licensed in suburbs or out of state, but causing problems in Chicago.

Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Commissioner Rosa Escareno recalled the March 2017 shooting that triggered the latest in a string of city crackdowns against party bus operators.

An argument aboard an illegal suburban party bus that stopped at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Edgewater turned into an exchange of gunfire that killed a 28-year-old man and injured two others.

• Police: Man shot himself, 2 others on party bus on North Side
• 2 killed, 1 wounded in Edgewater shooting
• 41 violations issued to party bus operators in summer crackdown: city
• Party’s over: 17 Chicago party bus firms ordered to cease and desist

“The goal here is tackling illegal problem operators coming into the city from outside the city. … It’s gonna be stronger … if we can call the State Police and say, can you do something about this guy?’ “ Escareno said.

“We’ll issue a cease-and-desist [order]. But he’s still operating in the suburbs. You guys need to take care of him out there. If they fix it out in the suburbs, guess what? We’re also addressing it here in the city.”

Escareno said she’s been testing a “night team” operating in conjunction with the Chicago Police Department to enforce party bus regulations.

But that night team won’t become permanent until access to driver and vehicle information is expanded from five city investigators to 10.

“It’s sensitive information. They don’t easily allow more individuals to have this access. What we have asked the Secretary of State is, `Let’s go above and beyond what we’ve been doing. Can you give me [access] for five more individuals?’ ” Escareno said. “If a driver has a license, but we don’t know the system actually suspended him, now we can actually check the system and have more resources on the street to verify records for the owner of the vehicle as well as the driver.”

Last year, the City Council moved to require party buses that carry at least 15 people drinking on board or making multiple bar stops to install security cameras or hire more security personnel.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s ordinance also gave operators the option of ending a trip at a destination, instead of returning to the point of origin, when an unruly passenger refuses to get off the bus. Problem buses were also hit with a 10-fold increase in fines.

Operators were further required to install “clearly identifiable signage” on licensed “large charter/sightseeing” vehicles to make it easier for Chicago Police officers to identify and shut down party buses operating without licenses.

In the year since the ordinance took effect, the city has issued 260 tickets, issued 36 cease-and-desist-orders and levied $130,650 in fines.

Shootings have declined dramatically — from six in 2016 to three last year and one shooting through June 1 of this year.

“Criminals have gotten the message: If you’re gonna be roaming around on a party bus, guess what? We’re gonna stop you,” Escareno said.