Crowd at hearing pans Nassau's LI Bus plan

During a contentious Long Island Bus hearing, Nassau lawmakers react to a resident who likens county officials to Hitler. Videojournalist: Jessica Rotkiewicz (Dec. 5, 2011)

A unified audience of Long Island Bus riders and employees spoke out against a Nassau County plan to privatize the bus system at a contentious public hearing Monday.

After waiting nearly two hours past the advertised start time, the crowd of about 200 people loudly booed County Executive Edward Mangano as he opened the public hearing at the county legislative chambers in Mineola with remarks about his plan to hand over the county's bus system, which has been run by the MTA for 38 years, to Illinois-based transit provider Veolia Transportation.

Asked by the county legislature's presiding officer, Peter Schmitt (R-Massapequa), to show some respect, one audience member called back, "He doesn't respect us."

Without exception, each of the 45 speakers at the hearing blasted the plan, and the process in which it has been pushed through the system with little public input until Monday. Veolia is set to take over the system, which serves 100,000 daily riders, in three weeks. Several other would-be speakers left before they were called at the hearing, which lasted well into the evening.

The contract has to be approved by the full legislature, which is set to vote on Dec. 19, and by the Nassau Interim Finance Authority before Veolia can take over on Jan. 1.

Speakers expressed concern that in its goal to make a profit, Veolia will cut service, raise fares and cut benefits and pay for workers.

Michael Ricca, who takes various buses to visit his girlfriend and mother, said if one of his lines was cut, he'd be left with few options.

"I'm left with walking, a skateboard or a mule," Ricca, of Mineola, said.

Mangano has pushed for privatization as a better alternative to the MTA, which he has said ran the bus system inefficiently and demanded too much money from the county. The MTA has said it made up for the county's funding shortfalls for years, and would need $26 million more from Nassau in order to keep existing service levels.

"Those were the facts that I had to deal with as your county executive -- find $26 million more in the worst of times when this county is facing serious decisions. We did not accept that. We looked for another way," Mangano said.

The hearing was very contentious at times, with speakers demanding that Schmitt look at them when they spoke, and Schmitt refusing. When speaker Behrous Shirazi, of Port Washington, likened Nassau officials to Adolf Hitler, Schmitt said the speaker's mother would be ashamed of him.

Ryan Lynch, spokesman for the nonprofit Tri-State Transportation Campaign, which has led the fight against privatization, said the speakers' emotions were a testament to how important Nassau's bus system is in their lives.

"I hope you've listened to them today," Lynch said. "There's no monopoly on good ideas."

Before the hearing, legislators met with Mangano and agreed on some amendments to the contract. They included a guarantee that fares will not go up in 2012, that Able-Ride, which serves disabled Nassau bus riders, will not be cut for three years, and also provides for a more thorough public hearing process if fare hikes or service cuts are proposed. The amendment also reduces the number of lines that Veolia can eliminate in the first half of 2012 from six to five.

In his presentation at the hearing, county bus consultant Mark Aesch assured the public that the newly privatized system, which will be known as the Nassau Inter-County Express, or NICE Bus, will be a marked improvement over the MTA, which he said has raised fares substantially in recent years and proposed axing half of Nassau's bus lines without an increase in subsidies.

"The things that the detractors have said might happen over the next five years already have happened over the last five years," Aesch said.

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