Too soon for cuts to new Nassau bus system

A new Nassau Inter-County Express (NICE) bus in A new Nassau Inter-County Express (NICE) bus in Garden City. (Jan. 1, 2012) Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has ...

Six weeks into Nassau County's vaunted public-private partnership on bus service -- and service cuts already are being proposed.

What will the cuts be? Riders won't know until Wednesday morning -- which won't give them much time to take the bus to the first of two so-called "NICE bus community meetings" that evening.

And, hey, wasn't there supposed to be a customer advisory committee in place by January? Not yet, Ryan Lynch, of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, which opposed the deal, pointed out.

It was just six weeks ago that County Executive Edward Mangano, Peter Schmitt, presiding officer of the legislature, and Kevan Abrahams, the body's minority leader, congratulated themselves for crafting the partnership with Veolia Transportation.

The idea, according to one of many Mangano news releases, "restores the MTA's proposed route cuts." And also "increases public accountability and oversight" on fare hikes and service cuts.

Uh, huh.

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The notions were preposterous from the start. Because the so-called NICE system was never going to have the luxury of operating the way county officials had promised.

Why? Because the deal's finances were flawed from Day One. It's no coincidence that Veolia finds itself almost more than $7 million in the hole so soon. That's close to what the county chose to shortchange the system when officials reduced Nassau's contribution to the MTA-run system from $9 million to $2.62 million.

"This is exactly the reason why we were so cautious and hesitant about the contract," Lynch said. "This is exactly what we thought would happen."

The cash-strapped county, already under a state financial control board, entered into the public-private partnership to cut expenses. That's fine for the county's bottom line, but somebody has to pay to keep the system running.

Veolia officials say they've done what they can to cut expenses, but it wasn't -- and likely never will be -- enough.

Why?

Because it costs money to run a bus system, lots of money. And the only significant revenue options for the county are fare hikes or service cuts.

Come April 8, the company will introduce what it calls a "redesigned bus system" -- that will include some service cuts, although fares will remain the same.

For now.

Riders who learned about the "community meetings" from signs on buses said they were not surprised. "If it looks too good to be true, it's too good to be true," said Trudie, who called me on Friday asking whether I knew more about the proposed cuts.

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She wanted to know as early as possible so she could make arrangements to attend a meeting. She said she would try to get to Roosevelt Field and then to a shuttle bus that would take her to the Marriott in Uniondale on Wednesday.

"Depending on work, it might be tight," she said.

She asked whether county officials would be there. They should because it is, after all, supposed to be a public-private partnership.

Nassau, inexcusably, has effectively washed its hands of Nassau's bus system. But there's no way for Nassau to get away clean.

Because the company's anticipated multimillion-dollar shortfall -- which, even company officials acknowledge, was predictable -- was never a significant part of the county's rushed and abbreviated approval process.

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The county promised to save taxpayer money by making arrangements to do more with less -- the same thing Nassau's now touting in a proposal that cuts the number of police precincts in half.

The proposed service cuts for bus service just made their selling job more difficult.

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