Nassau's newly privatized bus system is on pace to carry fewer people in 2012 than it did when the MTA operated it last year, but NICE's chief still says the agency's freshman year was a success.
Through September, NICE carried 22,265,492 passengers -- about 3 percent fewer than MTA Long Island Bus carried in the first nine months of 2011.
Veolia Transportation, a private bus operator based in Lombard, Ill., took over the system from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in January.
NICE, which stands for Nassau Inter-County Express, posted small gains in ridership in the first three months of 2012, as compared with the same months in 2011, but lost riders in every month that followed. In September, the ridership drop peaked at nearly 11 percent.
NICE chief executive Michael Setzer added that he expected October and November ridership numbers to be significantly below those of 2011 because of the impact of superstorm Sandy, which caused several days of service disruptions.
Although the decline coincided with service reductions on some routes that took effect in April, Setzer said the two are not related, and noted that the system actually carried more riders in the third quarter of 2012 than it did in the first.
Setzer said that various other factors, including gas prices and unemployment, had more to do with the trend. He added that the main reason that ridership was slightly higher in the first three months of 2012 than in 2011 was because the weather was much better.
But some bus riders' advocates said the reason for the lost riders is obvious.
"This is what happens when you cut service," said Ryan Lynch, associate director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. Lynch blamed Nassau's inadequate funding of its bus system for the cuts, which included the elimination of midday and Saturday service on some lines and longer waits between buses.
"Ridership is down because service was reduced. And service can't be increased unless there's more money to run the system," Lynch said.
Nassau contributes $2.5 million to NICE's $113 million budget, which also includes state aid and fare revenue.
"The critics quickly forget the fact that bus service, ridership levels and taxpayers would have been decimated by the MTA had County Executive [Edward] Mangano not stepped in to protect them," said Brian Nevin, Mangano's spokesman. "The successful transition from the MTA to NICE has resulted in more effective, efficient and accountable bus service for riders as well as a savings of more than $30 million annually for taxpayers."
Setzer said he'd like to have more money to add service on some routes that could use it, but added that it was NICE's job to make do.
Overall, Setzer said he believes Nassau's bus system is better than it was a year ago, and pointed to advancements in maintenance, training, technology and system design as proof.
"We think we've done a good job balancing system quality and cost, and have made the greatest use of the financial resources that are available," Setzer said. "Each month, we are making incremental improvements and creating more efficiencies . . . that are helping NICE reach its goal of offering the best service possible for its customers."
But Charlene Obernauer of the Long Island Bus Riders' Union -- a nonprofit advocacy group -- said many riders would disagree that things have gotten better.
She pointed to a customer satisfaction survey taken by advocates in June in which 45 percent of responders thought bus service was worse under NICE, as compared with 26 percent that thought it was better.
"Overwhelmingly, people will say that it's harder to get around now that NICE Bus is in place," said Obernauer, who said she appreciates some of the improvements that Veolia has made, but believes the system needs more funding to offer better service.
"We're not against NICE," she said. "We're just for bus riders in Nassau County."
BUS RIDERSHIP NUMBERS
Total NICE Bus ridership for the first nine months of 2012, compared with MTA operations in 2011
Source: NICE Bus