Recent cost-cutting measures by NICE Bus have resulted in some disabled riders being delayed by hours in getting to their destinations.
On May 1, the Nassau Inter County Express began a new effort to make its Able-Ride system more efficient by having riders share trips wherever possible. With passengers now waiting for fellow riders to get picked up and dropped off, trips have become far less direct, and much longer, riders said.
In a letter last month to NICE Bus, Nassau County Human Rights Commissioner Angela Davis said that her usual 20-minute commute from Garden City to Hempstead has recently taken as long as two hours -- a length of time she called "outrageous."
"There has to be a better way to save money," wrote Davis, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.
Able-Ride provides door-to-door minibus service to disabled riders who make appointments in advance to get picked up. The service carries 1,130 customers a day.
NICE Bus officials acknowledge that ride and wait times have been longer since the company started combining more trips a month ago, but said operations have steadily improved as they better understand scheduling.
The bus system "moved too quickly" in its new approach, chief executive Michael Setzer said, and has "pulled back" some by combining fewer trips. He said the agency will phase in its new ride-sharing policy more gradually and look for improvements in training and technology to avoid inordinately long trips and waits.
In January, Veolia Transportation took over Nassau's bus system, including Able-Ride. The county bus system was operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for 38 years.
As a condition of getting the bus contract, Veolia vowed not to cut service on Able-Ride for three years.
In a letter to Davis, Setzer wrote that the MTA's past practice of having separate Able-Ride vehicles make trips that were similar to each other was a "terrible waste of taxpayer dollars."
"Combining customers' travel needs, using the shared-ride approach . . . produces efficiencies, but it also produces longer trips for individuals," Setzer wrote. "I don't think there is any way around that."
However, Setzer added, even with the recent delays, NICE Bus is still abiding by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which calls for paratransit trips to take about the same amount of time as it would door-to-door for a fixed bus route customer.
David O'Donnell, who is blind and has multiple sclerosis, said he recently waited until 9:20 p.m. for a scheduled pickup at Levittown at 7:30 p.m. He didn't get to his Hempstead home until 10:45 that night.
"These people don't understand that they're transporting disabled people and they have to be punctual," O'Donnell said. "The situation was bad already. Now it's twice as bad."
Therese Brzezinski, director of advocacy at the Long Island Center for Independent Living, has been working with NICE Bus officials to improve scheduling. She said she believes they have been responsive and sincere in trying to address concerns.
"Folks understand this is new for them and that they're trying to get up to speed," Brzezinski said. "But it's been some time now and we expect that things would be running a little better than they are now."
Setzer said other issues besides ride sharing have led to problems for Able-Ride. NICE Bus had to hire a new staff at its scheduling center when it took over the system because previous Able-Ride employees stayed with the MTA. And new driver assignments contributed to the delays, NICE Bus officials said.
Setzer added that about half of the computer systems on Able-Ride buses, which allow their locations to be monitored remotely, did not work when Veolia took over operations. Veolia plans to install new systems by the end of the year, Setzer said.
Brzezinski said NICE Bus would not have to cut costs so deeply if it received more funding from Nassau County, which contributes $2.6 million a year to the bus system's $106 million annual operating budget.
Legis. Judy Jacobs (D-Woodbury) said that, with the county facing a budget deficit of more than $300 million, it can't afford to pay more, and NICE Bus needs to find efficiencies. But, she said, they should only go so far.
"I don't believe efficiencies that make people wait three hours are really efficient," Jacobs said.