Darius McCollum, 45, was stopped by police officers Tuesday morning in Queens while driving an empty New York Trailways bus, authorities said.
McCollum, who lives in Harlem, has been arrested 26 other times.
Over the years, he has donned Metropolitan Transportation Authority uniforms and cheerfully collected fares, cleared trash from tracks and put out underground fires. But he's also driven MTA buses and trains.
Trailways' vice president of marketing and traffic, Anne Noonan, said she didn't know if McCollum had been seen previously in the area where the 52-seat bus was stolen.
The bus was taken from a maintenance facility in Hoboken, N.J., earlier Tuesday. It was tracked using GPS to New York, where police stopped it around 9:15 a.m. on an entrance ramp to the Van Wyck Expressway, which connects Queens and the Bronx.
The New York Police Department says the keys were in the ignition and McCollum essentially walked to the facility, got on the bus and drove away. Police say he told them that he went to John F. Kennedy International Airport and drove around Queens. He didn't pick up any passengers, and he wasn't wearing a uniform, they say.
McCollum was expected to be arraigned Wednesday on a charge of criminal possession of stolen property, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said.
His mother, Elizabeth McCollum, said he's autistic and doesn't mean to harm anyone. She said she didn't believe he had stolen the bus.
"All he has to do is put his nose in New York and they'll pick him up," she told The Associated Press by phone from her home in Winston Salem, N.C.
Darius McCollum became a New York sensation as a teenager when he commandeered a subway train full of passengers in 1981, taking the controls and piloting it to the World Trade Center.
It turned out to be the first of many forbidden rides. By the mid-1990s, frustrated transit officials posted thousands of wanted posters in trains and stations so riders could report McCollum sightings. But riders who ran into him found him simply friendly and helpful.
The MTA New York City Transit agency's security department has had McCollum on its radar since his most recent release, and MTA spokesman Paul Fleuranges said employees have been on the lookout for the "career transit worker wannabe."
"We applaud the NYPD's recent arrest and hope he is punished to the fullest extent of the law and kept far away from anything with wheels," Fleuranges said.
In 2001, McCollum pleaded guilty to posing as a transit supervisor the previous year, tripping a switch that caused a subway train to stop. He was sentenced to 2 1/2 to five years in prison and was paroled in April 2006.
In 2008, he was arrested in the Columbus Circle subway station in Manhattan for impersonating an MTA employee. And a couple of months after that he was held on charges he impersonated a federal officer aboard a Long Island Rail Road commuter train in Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan.
Some medical experts said they believe he suffers from Asperger's syndrome, a mental condition on the autism spectrum characterized by obsessive and anti-social behavior. He has never been diagnosed.
Elizabeth McCollum said she moved to North Carolina 20 years ago with her only son, who would pick up and leave for New York because he missed the trains.
He has never worked as a paid transit employee. His mother said that by the time he was 8 he had memorized the city subway system, by far the biggest in the country, and could direct a person to any point on it without consulting a map or guide.
She said she asked the MTA several times to give him a job or an internship but the agency refused.
"He's in hog heaven when he's on a train or a bus," she said. "What he needs is a break. He needs help. He is an exceptional kid, but he's never been given a chance to use his gifts. It's sad."
To work as a train operator he'd have to take a civil service exam and wait to be contacted by the city - and it's unclear how his legal history would affect his chances of being hired.