When visitors climb aboard Portland tourist vehicles, there's a pretty good chance nobody's watching, despite Angie Hernandez's death.
Hernandez was 11 years old on Sept. 29, 2012, when she boarded a party bus chartered to take her to a quinceañera. As the bus turned a corner in downtown Portland, Hernandez fell out of a window and suffered a fatal injury.
Her death drew scrutiny of the company operating the party bus without the required city permit. Portland Bureau of Transportation officials said the company, Five Star Limousines, was part of a larger danger: unsanctioned nightclubs on wheels.
"They really look very much like a dance floor in Las Vegas," John Case, a member of the city review committee for private for-hire transportation companies, told The Oregonian at the time. "Everybody is absolutely outraged."
Nearly seven years later, little has changed—except a lot more vehicles now ferry tourists around the city. Party buses have been joined by weed vans, wine shuttles and even helicopters.
Many of these companies flout city rules. WW counted at least 25 companies currently advertising tour pickups in Portland that do not have the required permits. That's far more than the 16 tour companies listed as permitted by the city's private for-hire transportation program. The compliance rate appears similarly modest for party buses and limousines.
City regulators say that's despite an aggressive effort to police scofflaws. "People don't often notify regulators or enforcement staff to say they are going to break the law," says PBOT spokesman Dylan Rivera, "which is why we take a proactive approach, in addition to responding to complaints."
Licensed tour bus operators want more policing of the bad actors.
"When I pull up at the Nines [hotel]," says Jeff Davies, owner of Portland's Ecotours of Oregon, "I'd like a PBOT person every once in a while to say, 'Would you mind showing us your permit?'"
Rivera says PBOT has done plenty: issuing 31 fines, suspending two permits and sending two cease-and-desist letters since 2016. He says the bureau currently has 27 open investigations on tour bus companies.
"Outside of Portland, permits are not required, so many companies are just not aware that they need a permit to pick up passengers inside city limits," he says. "Most tour companies conduct tours outside of the city, and the actual vehicle is in the city for a very short period."
Party buses and tour vans are classified differently by PBOT, but they face a similar permitting process. If a vehicle carries more than 14 passengers or weighs more than 2,600 pounds, it needs a state permit, as well as city licenses. Companies with smaller vehicles need a $500 city permit and a $250 permit for each vehicle. The vehicles can't be more than 10 years old, and they must be inspected by a certified mechanic. The company has to carry $1 million of liability insurance.
These rules apply to any company that picks up passengers in Portland. But they don't apply to companies that only drop people off in Portland—a party bus could legally pick up customers, take them to Portland strip clubs for a bachelor party, then drop them back off in the 'burbs—and surrounding cities don't have any rules to break.
In 2012, the year Hernandez died, the Portland City Council toughened the rules requiring party buses to get city permits, so that repeat offenders would face criminal charges. Rivera says PBOT hasn't yet taken that step.
"We have not prosecuted," he says. "Violators typically halt operations after we have warned and fined them."
It's unclear what effect greater scrutiny by PBOT of tour providers would have.
Five Star Limousines, the company operating the bus that ran over Angie Hernandez, went quiet shortly after her death. In 2014, the Portland Tribune reported its fleet had been sold to another company—which was then targeted by PBOT for breaking city rules.
Bizarrely, a company using the same name—Five Star Limousines—now advertises party buses for rent in Portland. (Public records suggest it has different owners.) The company has no city permit. A man reached at the company's phone number declined to discuss city permits. "It's really nobody's concern, without a formal letter," he said, and wouldn't give his full name.
"When we say 'party bus' we really emphasize party," Five Stars' website says. "All of the chauffeurs are licensed and knowledgeable of the area so that your only worry is to have a good time."