There's no way of knowing exactly how many illegal commuter vans operate in New York City, a city official told lawmakers Thursday.
Taxi and Limousine Commission Chair Meera Joshi told city council members on Thursday that there are some 585 authorized commuter vans operating throughout the city, though the agency wasn't sure how many are operating illegally.
"It's safe to say it's probably — I don't think equal — but not far off from equal," Joshi said.
Problems with policing illegal vans are compounded for the agency now a federal judge declared on Oct. 1 that the TLC's car seizure policy was unconstitutional.
To date, Joshi said the TLC seized 274 vehicles before the judge's decision. Last year, the agency seized 516 vehicles.
The council members mulled over a trio of bills targeting the commuter vans. One bill would encourage illegal van operators to legitimize themselves by reducing certain burdens — including eliminating a requirement for passenger manifests and pre-arranging pick ups and no longer requiring license renewals every six years.
Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams, who introduced the bill to legitimize more van operators, described his intent as helping get more drivers "out of the shadows."
The two other bills would require the TLC to study commuter vans, thereby freezing any new licenses, and increase penalties on any violations. Operating an illegal van can earn range between $500 and $2,500 in fines.
The current bill would hike fines to as high as $4,000.
Queens Councilman Donovan Richards described the problems with commuter vans as a matter of public safety. Over the last few years, officials have pointed to a series of dangerous situations.
In 2014, an illegal van driver attempted to escape police while driving with 10 passengers in his van in Brooklyn. One woman jumped out and injured herself while trying to escape.
Joshi said the TLC agreed with some of the suggestions proposed by council members, but pushed back on others, including eliminating a minimum fine out of concern that judges would reduce them to negligible amounts.
However,Joshi still praised commuter vans as a small but necessary form of transportation for working class New Yorkers in parts of town that might not have consistent and fast access between two neighborhoods.
"Commuter vans have filled that gap and fill that gap admirably," she said.