NICE Bus: Government aid needs to stay same

A NICE bus at the Mineola depot in

A NICE bus at the Mineola depot in Mineola. (Dec. 26, 2012) (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

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Nassau's bus system will cost less to operate in 2013, but government aid must remain steady to ensure fares stay the same and service is not cut, NICE Bus chief executive Michael Setzer said.

He projected a 2013 operating budget of $109.8 million for the county bus system -- about $3 million less than the current year's budget of $113 million.

The lower costs were achieved by efficiencies, including reductions in bus service enacted in April -- four months after Veolia Transportation, a private firm from Lombard, Ill., took over the system from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Setzer said at a meeting of Nassau's Transit Advisory Committee, which oversees NICE, that while the system will see increased labor costs because of a 3 percent contractual raise for workers, overall costs would go down in the coming year.

Nonetheless, Setzer said he could not predict whether NICE would seek a fare increase or service reductions in 2013 until Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo releases his proposed 2013 budget, which would give some indication of how much state funding the bus system could expect.

"We're missing a couple of crucial pieces of information," Setzer told the committee last week during a presentation on NICE's 2013 budget. "So please don't try to read between the lines, because there's nothing in between the lines to read."

State aid makes up about half of NICE's annual budget, while fare revenue accounts for about 35 percent. Setzer called other funding, including the $2.6 million subsidy from Nassau, "insignificant."

Sen. Charles Fuschillo (R-Merrick), who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, said he fully expects 2013 state aid to NICE "to be at the very least what it was this year."

"We'll do whatever we can at the state to make sure the fares don't rise and the level of service continues," Fuschillo said.

Ryan Lynch, associate director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit transit advocacy group, reiterated his call for Nassau to step up funding for the bus system.

NICE will publicly release its proposed 2013 budget by February. Its fiscal year begins in April.

Setzer said another factor affecting NICE's 2013 budget will be the MTA plan to increase fares by 7 percent next year. Although not operated by the MTA, NICE accepts the agency's MetroCard. Setzer said there would be "a lot of complexity" to having a different fare structure than the MTA.

Nassau Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick), a vocal critic of NICE, said the future of Nassau's bus system remains unchanged from when the county looked to Veolia as an alternative to the MTA.

"The state is not contributing more money. The county has to come up with more or face service cuts and fare hikes," Denenberg said. "Everything is as it was, except the parties are different."

Setzer also said 45 new buses were set to roll out within the next several days, replacing the oldest buses in NICE's fleet of about 300 fixed-route buses. The new buses cost a total of $21 million and were largely funded through federal grants.

The state-of-the-art vehicles include one new safety feature -- a voice recording that warns pedestrians when buses are turning left.

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