Opponents of proposed party bus change say it will limit competition in Las Vegas

It turns out that not every bus and limousine company in Southern Nevada is in support of the proposed regulations redefining rolling ultra-lounges.

And to hear officers of the Nevada Bus and Limousine Association tell it, they’re in a David-and-Goliath fight against the city’s largest bus and limo companies to preserve an existing regulation that says the difference between a bus and a limousine is in the number of passengers it carries, not whether it’s equipped with stripper poles, nightclub lights and fog machines.

Last month, the Nevada Transportation Authority published a proposed amendment addressing several aspects of bus and limousine operations.

One of the passages of the proposed amendment defines vehicles equipped with “a pole or other apparatus generally used for dancing; nightclub-style lighting such as rotating lights, strobe lights or lasers; or, fog or smoke machines” as livery limousines.

Backers of the new language say it’s a safety measure designed to prevent unlicensed and uninsured out-of-state companies from operating in the city during large conventions and special events. The proposed regulation also would block charter bus companies from entering the lucrative and growing party-bus industry.

The measure is backed by the Livery Operators Association, an organization composed of the city’s six largest limousine, bus and taxi companies, representing about three-quarters of the local for-hire vehicles on the road.

The smaller Nevada Bus and Limousine Association represents most of the rest of the industry, about 25 carriers with 50 or fewer employees and vehicle fleets as large as 10 and as small as one.

NBLA leaders say the proposed regulation, which will be discussed at a workshop meeting sometime in the next two months, is a smokescreen for a plan to limit competition in Las Vegas by making it more difficult for the small companies to run their party buses.

“This association was formed by the little guys so we could represent ourselves against the big guys,” said Dan Nunes, president of VegasVIP and treasurer of the NBLA.

The association was formed in October when some of the larger limo companies first floated the proposal to reclassify buses and limousines. The nonprofit organization considers itself a neutral forum for gathering and exchanging ideas and information on best practices.

“The new definition became a hot-button issue for us because while we can have an almost unlimited number of buses, the number of vehicles is capped on the limousine side,” said Lou Castro, president of Earth Limos &Buses and vice president of the association.

Castro and association President Tony Clark, CEO and owner of 24/7 Limousines, explained that for a limousine company to expand, it must prove that any business a new vehicle generates would be new and wouldn’t take business from existing companies. Association officers say they can’t even replace old limos because they were grandfathered under prior regulations, and any new vehicles would have to be approved under rules imposed in 2005.

“It’s an almost impossible standard,” Castro said. “Whatever limos we have on the road now is capped, and 99 percent of the time, we can’t increase. Plus, it’s about a two-year process, and we have to jump through a lot of hoops. By the time we’d get approved, the reason we sought the license is no longer viable or a prospective client has gone elsewhere.”

Those hoops include an intervention process in which existing companies in the industry get to weigh in on any expansion proposal and dispute any justification before the Transportation Authority, which has the final say for approval.

The association views the proposed regulation changing the definition of a bus to a limousine as a means to further erode a small company’s ability to expand because expanding a limousine fleet is so arduous.

“The way we look at it, a bus is a bus,” Clark said. “It’s a 26,000-pound coach. Whether my seat goes sideways or my seat goes longways, it’s still the same coach. If I have LED lights, a strobe machine or a fog machine, it’s still a bus. Now, they’re saying that bus is actually a limo.”

Clark said he doesn’t want to remove the party bus atmosphere from his vehicles but would do it if regulators determine it’s hazardous to drivers and riders. He said party bus riders aren’t standing when buses are in motion, but some rides can include a stop so that customers can get up and dance and enjoy the ultra-lounge environment.

The association leaders said safety concerns and keeping unlicensed vehicles from operating in Nevada already are covered by existing regulations.

“The Transportation Authority already has full control over limousines and buses operating in the state,” Clark said. “They can slap a $5,000 fee to retrieve impounded vehicles, and impounds are at the highest level in five years.”

He added that buses already are inspected by both the Transportation Authority and the U.S. Department of Transportation, which monitors interstate bus traffic.

A change in the regulation would remove the federal inspection if a vehicle is classified as a limo.

“My company is all buses, and I have only been in business for two years,” Castro said. “I’ve created a business that employs 16 people. In this economy, I would hope the public would look at at our story and say, ‘These guys are providing jobs.’

“If they get away with this, it’s going to be the typical David vs. Goliath situation and the big guy is going to win, and he’s going to crush the little guys out and someone like me is going to have to reduce staff. I’m going to have to eliminate jobs.”

It’s uncertain how the three-member Transportation Authority would vote on the matter, but already association members are wary that a board member who has been even-handed with the association in the past will attend her last meeting as a commissioner Thursday.

Commissioner Monica Metz will be replaced in May by Keith Sakelhide, a deputy Labor Commission member and a former attorney with the Transportation Authority.

Contact reporter Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow him on Twitter @RickVelotta.

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