battle in court; Interstate travel targets Utah bus stops in Nevada, California

RENO, Nev. (AP) — A Utah-based bus company says neighboring Nevada has “declared war” on its interstate travel services, seizing one of its passenger vans and leaving 20 passengers stranded without transportation due to false accusations of operating unsafe vehicles.

Nevada transportation officials argue that Salt Lake Express is engaged in an illegal scheme to evade regulation of its intrastate bus lines by making fast trips across the California border at stops with no customers during trips to Las Vegas. They are concerned that the Utah company’s failure to comply with state requirements regarding inspections and record keeping could jeopardize passenger safety.

The conflict over routes, which stretches from the high desert of northern Nevada to a California trailer park in the mountains near Lake Tahoe and Death Valley, nearly 400 miles (643 kilometers) away, has reached the US District Court in Reno.

Lawyers for the company say they have been forced to seek federal protection because “the Nevada Transportation Authority has declared war on Salt Lake Express.”

“The seizure and forfeiture of the van belonging to Salt Lake Express in Reno on May 17…was shameful and caused the company to commit the unforgivable sin of a common carrier: stranding passengers with no other way to help them,” Salt said. Lake Express wrote in recent court filings.

“The loss of the vehicle, the trauma of the employed driver, the stranded passengers, the constant threat of another seizure have all combined to make the situation volatile and dangerous,” they said.

Attorney General Aaron Ford and his deputies maintain that the Nevada Transportation Authority “has not treated Salt Lake Express unfairly in any way.”

The company’s assertion that the authority “has declared war on the Salt Lake Express…is the perfect opening line for the rest of its motion; full of hyperbole and flash, but without any legal or factual basis,” they wrote in recent court documents.

The dispute centers largely on disagreement over the point where intrastate travel (travel within the same state) ends and interstate travel between states begins. The United States government regulates interstate travel. States have the authority to impose their own rules and regulations within their borders.

Judge Robert Jones denied the Salt Lake Express’s emergency request this week to order Nevada to return its impounded minibus and issue a temporary injunction, barring the state from continued harassment that they say could eventually bankrupt them.

The filing deadlines remain in effect next week so that the case continues on a normal schedule, likely for months.

Salt Lake Express, owned by Western Trails Charters & Tours, says its regularly inspected fleet of more than 100 buses and vans serving eight western states comply with federal regulations and are not subject to Transportation Authority oversight from Nevada.

“Every regulation that the NTA seeks to impose on Salt Lake Express is a duplication of these federal regulations and requirements,” their lawyers said, including background checks, drug tests and licensing.

“Salt Lake Express has spent years trying unsuccessfully to appease the NTA and convince them that their redundant regulation was unnecessary and illegal,” they wrote May 24 in the request for an emergency order. They said they haven’t had similar problems in Washington, Arizona, Montana, California, Wyoming, Idaho or Utah.

The seizure at Reno-Tahoe International Airport left 20 passengers stranded on the route that begins in Reno and travels briefly to Truckee, Calif., before returning to Nevada bound for Sparks, Fernley, Fallon, Hawthorne Tonopah, Beatty, the California’s Death Valley, Pahrump and Las Vegas, they said.

The NTA imposed a fine of $10,000 plus the costs of the illegal towing and storage. And while “Salt Lake Express’s reputation took a major blow,” the damage to stranded passengers “is significant and probably not calculable,” the company’s lawyers said.

“What value is missing from your son’s last high school baseball game?” they asked.

The parties disagree on whether the company received adequate notice of the disciplinary hearings and whether its lawyers were certified to appear before the authority’s commission.

In 2021-22, the NTA cited the company for operating an uninspected vehicle, as well as failing to identify equipment used for intrastate commerce and maintaining proper maintenance files, among other things.

This year, before the seizure, he issued citations for allowing two drivers to drive without NTA permits, use uninspected vehicles and fail to provide requested drug test results.

“The reason Plaintiff’s license was suspended in the first place stems from certain safety violations and that his vehicles failed to meet certain minimum requirements,” Nevada attorneys wrote May 29 in the state’s opposition to the offer. of emergency help.

“Those passengers are no better off driving through the Nevada desert in unsafe vehicles,” they said.

The state maintains that its authority is clear because “all of the passenger transportation” occurred in Nevada, and the only interstate travel was “the morning drive without passengers across the border to a California campground,” the attorneys wrote.

“This is a classic subterfuge,” they said. “Plaintiff is not actually picking up passengers in either Truckee or Death Valley. It’s not even certain that the vehicles will actually go as far as Truckee or Death Valley.”