LAS VEGAS — Brakes hiss, windows shake, panels crackle and passengers jolt backward when the chilled vehicles take off from stops scattered throughout the Las Vegas Valley.
That’s the typical scene inside buses operated by the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, which touts more than 40 million yearly rides.
But for the past couple of years, drivers tasked with transporting riders across dozens of routes on hundreds of buses have increasingly complained to public officials about what they describe as rising dangers on the vehicles attributed to misbehaving and sometimes violent passengers.
One passenger, for example, is accused of fatally stabbing Dominique Lucas, 30, inside a bus in February, Las Vegas police allege.
A union that represents transit workers told local officials in mid-April about two other stabbings and a shooting that had occurred within a two-week period.
Then later that month, a transit system supervisor suffered life-threatening injuries when he was stabbed at a downtown Las Vegas bus station, police said.
“How many lives are gonna be lost?” Dennis Hennessey, a bus driver, asked during an interview with the Review-Journal. The 65-year-old man is part of a safety committee that also comprises RTC staff and representatives from both the operator and security firms the transportation commission contracts.
‘A real fear’
Hennessey himself, a 13-year RTC veteran, has been assaulted a half-dozen times, including a time he was “beat up pretty good,” he said.
While it’s been about two years since he was attacked physically, he said, “I’ve been spit on, Cokes thrown at me, or soft drinks thrown at me.”
He said shields installed around the driver’s station do little to deter passengers getting through the plastic.
“We’ve had feces and urine thrown over the top of the driver compartment,” Hennessey said. “Yeah, there’s a fear; it’s a real fear. Is it scary? You never know what you’re driving up to.”
Recently, he said, he had to stop his bus and kick off a passenger who was threatening to stab an elderly person.
The unruly rider then threw a rock and shattered the $6,000 windshield, he said.
“Verbal abuse is a common if you say ‘no’ to anything, and there’s a whole list of rules posted on RTC buses,” he said.
Rules that seem to cause the most havoc include having to wake up sleeping riders or having to deny free rides, said Hennessey, who called the ongoing issues a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”
“Back when I first started as a driver, you might get, a day, one or two people that would ask for courtesy rides,” he said. “Now, it’s 30 to 40 a day, because it’s always been ‘just let it go; just let it go.’ “
“So there’s no fare enforcement policy that sticks,” he added. “We’re having the same people every day asking for free rides. … the ones that are escalating are the same ones.”
Hennessey said, “It’s not worth violence over a $2 bus ride.”’
The driver also blames lax security, alleging that guards placed across stops and in random buses as deterrents have their hands tied on how much action they can take.
“Don’t wait for me to say I have a sleeper in the back,” Hennessey said. “Get on the bus; walk through the bus.”
Hennessey recently spent nearly nine hours traveling as a passenger on 10 different routes. “I came across zero security guards,” he noted.
RTC reported 166 passenger-on-passenger assaults in fiscal year 2023, which ended at the end of June, and were 29 fewer than the previous year. Meanwhile, 35 passenger-on-driver assaults were reported during the same year, three more than fiscal year 2022.
“We’re a microcosm of what’s happening in our community, and the community saw an increase in crimes and, unfortunately, so did we,” RTC deputy CEO Francis Julian said in an interview.
Increased violence on public transportation is a nationwide issue, RTC argues. And while “transit security events” exploded by 23 percent across the U.S. from 2021 to 2022, RTC only saw about a 6.5 percent uptick.
The drivers union has called for the creation of a transit police department, something Julian said would need to come from the Nevada Legislature. Hennessey expressed frustration that no action was taken during the biannual session that just ended.
Julian said the RTC has invested more than $33 million in public safety over the past three years, including upgrading the high-definition surveillance on-bus cameras, he said. Since 2019, the number of security guards has increased from 196 to 214, with 33 additional positions approved.
The commission also recently instituted a “panic button” pilot program.
“We’re not going to fix it in one day. Unfortunately, we’ll need to bite that elephant one bite at a time and come up with solutions which I think we are,” Julian said. “Are they perfect? No, but we’re actually seeing some progress.”
Hennessey said that security is slow to respond to incidents, and that if they don’t see a crime take place, they don’t take action.
“Why can’t somebody go pull the video right then in there and say, ‘Look, trust what the driver said when he said that guy just punched that other guy or that guy did this, or that guy threatened me,’” Hennessey said. “Whatever the case may be: You can pull the video; they don’t want to do that.”
‘Close the damn door’
Observers need to step into one of the mud-brown-and-navy-blue-colored buses to experience a diverse, all-ages ridership of casual and regular passengers, some of whom have relied on the RTC for decades.
Take Charles Lipson and Larry Traub, retirees who ride everywhere while running errands.
“It gets me where I need to go; that’s the key thing, you know,” said Traub, a 71-year-old military veteran.
Some like David Jones — who boarded a bus on Flamingo Road near the Strip one recent late night — take the bus out of convenience.
“I save about $400, $500 a month,” Jones said about not having a monthly car payment, even though his bus that night was delayed more than an hour.
There are passengers who travel to the airport, or others who appear to be transient, who haul luggage. Then there are those who travel with their work clothes on, such as scrubs or fast-food restaurant attire.
Some riders are chatty, while others sit quietly with their eyes trained on their phones, noise blocked out by headphones.
A passenger who snuck onto a Maryland Parkway bus on June 22 nearly caused a ruckus when the driver refused to take off until “the guy in the brown shirt” got out.
Frustrated, fellow passengers began to yell.
“Close the damn door,” a woman exclaimed. “He’s doing this (expletive) on purpose,” another passenger added. The complaints continued after the bus took off.
On another ride on the same route, a woman exclaimed, “You hit me in the knee again” before asking to get out. “It’s a smelly bus,” she yelled.
“You smell,” someone yelled back.
‘You’re right in front of kids’
Rodney N. Tate Jr. said he’s seen it all on RTC buses, from people smoking fentanyl to fights breaking out.
Working to get his life back in order after legal troubles, the 29-year-old was heading home on June 1 after attending drug court and participating in wellness and recovery classes in downtown Las Vegas.
“I feel like for me, I’ve taken so much from my community, from myself,” he said, “that I just want to give back.”
He’s going to school for a bachelor’s degree in behavioral sciences, and says he used some of those skills to de-escalate tussles inside buses.
“When I see something on the bus that’s inappropriate or uncalled for, I usually call the people out on it,” he said.
On a recent ride, he said, he reminded an unruly passenger that, “Bro, you’re right in front of kids.”
Tate said that more people need to peacefully step up. And while he has experienced “rude drivers,” he sort of understands the psyche.
“Probably because they get the type of treatment from passengers every day,” he said.
Although he hasn’t seen a driver get attacked, he said, “Me personally, I wouldn’t let it happen.”
Another rider, Kim, 33, who declined to give her last name, takes a different approach.
“I really just stay in my head,” she said. “If it’s not affecting me, then I don’t engage in it.”
‘You do get some real jerks’
Traub, the military veteran, has been riding public transportation in Las Vegas since the early 1990s and has only seen one concerning incident and overall feels safe.
“You do get some real jerks on the bus every once in a while,” he said in late June. But he said that applies to the drivers as well.
“With bus drivers, you got the same thing that you have everywhere else; you’ve got some that are friendly as hell and others that are just jerks.”
Lipson, the other retiree, has been taking Las Vegas buses since 2002 after moving after the 9/11 attacks in Washington, D.C., where he worked at an airport. He said he recently witnessed a fight nearly break out.
“A woman got offended because of her smell,” he said. The driver stopped the bus and told one of the instigating women to move.
He described his former hometown’s bus system as more rowdy, and expected Las Vegas to experience the same issues.
“It’s just a city growing, and it’s going to happen,” Lipson said.
Jones, the man who enjoys saving hundreds of dollars in monthly car payments, said he’s been riding Las Vegas buses for a quarter-century.
“There’s a lot of people who are abusive, especially when the buses are crowded — they like to take it out on the driver,” he said.
He said the local jurisdictions need to do more to help the unhoused population with mental health issues, who tend to ride the bus.
“A lot of them are so psychotic,” he said. “The homeless people are fine, but there are some homeless people that because of their condition, are very vulnerable.”
Hennessey, the driver, said his son is a police officer.
“My family worries more about me and the job I have as a bus driver than they worry about him,” he said.
Still, he said he’s found his career rewarding since a cousin convinced him to get into it.
“It’ll be the best job you ever had,” Hennessey was told. “All you got to do is show up to work on time.”
And his cousin’s counsel has proven to be right, he added. “I love it.”