Lawsuit targets Salt Lake Express routes in Nevada, California

Reno, Nevada • A Utah-based bus company says the neighboring state of Nevada has “declared war” on its interstate travel services, impounding one of its people carriers and leaving 20 passengers without a ride based on false claims of operating unsafe vehicles.

Nevada transportation officials are arguing that the Salt Lake Express is involved in an illegal plan to evade regulation of its in-state bus routes by making fast trips across the California border at busless stops while en route to Las Vegas. They worry that the Utah company’s failure to comply with state requirements for inspections and maintenance records could jeopardize passenger safety.

The dispute over the routes — which stretch from the high desert of northern Nevada to a California RV park in the mountains near Lake Tahoe and Death Valley nearly 400 miles away — has landed in US District Court in Reno.

The company’s attorneys say they were forced to seek federal protection because “the Nevada Transportation Authority declared war on the Salt Lake Express.”

“The impounding and impounding of the Salt Lake Express pickup truck in Reno on May 17 … was embarrassing and led to the company committing the unforgivable sin of a public transportation company – leaving passengers stranded with no other way to help them.” ‘ wrote the Salt Lake Express in recent court filings.

“The loss of the vehicle, the trauma of the staff driver, the stranded passengers and the constant threat of another impound have made the situation unstable and dangerous,” they said.

Attorney General Aaron Ford and his deputies allege that the Nevada Transportation Authority “did not treat Salt Lake Express unfairly in any way.”

The company’s claim that the agency has “declared war on the Salt Lake Express…” is the perfect opening sentence for the rest of their filing; full of hyperbole and flashes, but without any legal or factual basis,” they wrote in recent court filings.

The dispute largely revolves around disagreements over when intrastate travel — travel within the same state — ends and interstate travel between states begins. The US government regulates interstate travel. States have the power to enforce their own rules and regulations within their borders.

Judge Robert Jones this week denied the Salt Lake Express emergency motion to order Nevada to return its impounded van and issue an injunction barring the state from further harassment that it says could ultimately put the company out of business.

The filing deadlines remain next week to allow the case to proceed on a normal schedule, likely for months to come.

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 complies with federal regulations and is not subject to oversight by the Nevada Transportation Authority.

“Any regulation that the NTA intends to impose on the Salt Lake Express is a duplication of these federal rules and requirements,” her attorneys said, including background checks, drug testing and licensing.

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

The Reno-Tahoe International Airport confiscation left 20 passengers stranded on the route, which began in Reno and traveled briefly to Truckee, California before returning to Nevada and en route to Sparks, Fernley, Fallon, Hawthorne Tonopah, Beatty, California’s Death Valley, Pahrump and Las Vegas made it, they said.

The NTA imposed a $10,000 fine plus the cost of illegal towing and storage. And although “Salt Lake Express’s reputation has taken a serious blow,” the damage to stranded passengers is “substantial and likely incalculable,” the company’s attorneys said.

“What’s the value of your kid missing the last high school baseball game?” they asked.

The parties disagree as to whether the company was given adequate notice of disciplinary hearings and whether its lawyers were certified to appear before the agency’s commission.

In 2021–22, the NTA sued the company for operating an unchecked vehicle, as well as failing to identify equipment used for domestic commerce and not maintaining proper maintenance records, among other charges.

That year, prior to the seizure, they issued allegations for allowing two drivers to drive without an NTA permit, using uninspected vehicles, and failing to provide requested drug test results.

“The reason the plaintiff had his driver’s license suspended is primarily because of certain safety violations and because his vehicles did not meet certain minimum requirements,” Nevada attorneys wrote May 29, denying the state’s request for emergency assistance.

“It’s no better for these passengers to travel through the Nevada desert in unsafe vehicles,” they said.

The state claims its authority is clear because “every part of the passenger transportation” occurred in Nevada and the only interstate trip was “the morning trip with no passengers across the border to a California campground,” attorneys wrote.

“It’s a classic deception,” they said. “The plaintiff does not actually pick up passengers in either Truckee or Death Valley. It’s not even certain if the vehicles will even go as far as Truckee or Death Valley.”

Justin Scaccy

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