In the comments to my last post, Martin Evelyn (apparently a spokesperson for the Taxi and Limousine Commission) directed me to this PDF soliciting involvement in the TLC's pilot livery van program. Thanks, Martin! There's a bunch of interesting information in there.
First, as Martin pointed out, vans intended to fill in for the former B39 route will not be restricted to shuttling across the Williamsburg Bridge. The solicitation invites vans to travel throughout "An area running from Williamsburg through the Lower East Side to Union Square, including the area served by the former B39." This does in fact allow the kind of "hipster jitneys" that I proposed - from the parts of central and south Williamsburg that are not served by the L train to the East Village and eastern Soho, for example.
Second, that language is only used for the B39, indicating that that route is particularly challenging for a private operator running non-wheelchair-accessible vans.
Third, "The TLC expects to approve no more than three participants per service area." In other words, these are not exclusive contracts, but licenses to compete in a particular area. If the Transport Workers' Union really does run vans down Union Street with laid-off MTA drivers, will they face competition from other operators?
Fourth, as Martin also took pains to point out, "Although the TLC anticipates designating certain fixed stopping points within the service areas, drivers can arrange other drop-off locations individually with passengers on each trip." The wording is vague as to whether the other drop-off locations have to be within the service areas. For example, if someone on a van in "the area served by the former B71 (Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, Prospect Heights)" asks the driver to go through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and drop her off at the World Financial Center, would it be allowed? What if someone asks for that every day (hint, hint)?
These aspects of the program are encouraging, but I would prefer if the TLC were more explicit about allowing applicants to propose alternate routes that would serve the same populations but bring in more money for the operators. Some of these routes are more than a hundred years old, and they could use more than minor tweaking.