NICE board passes budget, hopes to maintain service, fares

Nassau Inter-County Express buses take on passengers at Nassau Inter-County Express buses take on passengers at a bus stop on Old Country Road in Carl Place on March 26, 2014. Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

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An oversight panel gave final approval Thursday to a $121.9 million budget for the Nassau County bus system in the hopes it will be enough to preserve current fares and levels of service.

The 5-0 vote by the Nassau County Bus Transit Committee, whose members are appointed by the county executive and the county legislature, authorized the annual budget of the Nassau Inter-County Express for the fiscal year beginning April 1.

There is a $3.3 million gap in revenues, the head of NICE, Michael Setzer, told the committee members during a public meeting at the company's offices in Garden City.

The governor has included $62.8 million in operating assistance for NICE this year, Setzer said. Since the legislature had added $5 million on top of that to the governor's proposed budget the year before, Setzer said, he was "hopeful" that it would do so again this year in upcoming state budget talks.

If state lawmakers do not increase aid, NICE will look to the county for additional help, Setzer said. Failing that, he said, NICE would have to prepare sometime this summer to cut service to reduce costs. The county has budgeted $2.6 million in aid to NICE this year, he said.

The biggest factors driving increased costs in the new budget were a 3 percent contractual pay raise for unionized workers, an increase in health insurance premiums, higher prices for natural gas for its buses, and an increase in demand for Able-Ride, which must be provided under law, he said.

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He showed committee members a chart that he said showed that NICE has improved the efficiency of the bus service since it took over operation of the county-owned system, then called Long Island Bus, from the MTA in 2012.

The hourly expense of operating a bus was $151 in 2011, the last year the system was run by the MTA, and that has dropped to $123 in 2012 and $122 in 2013 under NICE, the chart showed.

Setzer is also a vice president of Veolia Transportation, the firm picked by the county to run the bus system under the new name. The new budget has an expected payment of $3.6 million to Veolia this year for operating the system.

Setzer said he had not calculated how much Veolia expected to earn under the current budget, but it would be less than $3.6 million.

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