NICE Bus is taking the first step toward a possible fare hike in March that could hit Nassau County bus riders with the same increase that the MTA recently adopted.
As it is contractually obligated to do before any fare increase, NICE will hold public hearings before its governing body, the Nassau Bus Transit Committee, "to discuss the anticipated effect of the MTA's fare changes on the NICE bus system." The hearings will be at 2 and 5 p.m. Thursday at NICE's headquarters at 700 Commercial Ave., in Garden City.
Any fare increase must be approved by the five-member committee. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority last month approved a fare hike plan that will see the cost of a bus ride inside New York City go from $2.25 to $2.50 and other increases for multi-ride MetroCards beginning in March.
Although not part of the MTA, NICE does accept the MetroCard, which is used by about two-thirds of its riders. NICE is not bound by the MTA's fare structure, and NICE chief executive Michael Setzer said the agency has not decided what course of action it will recommend to the county. But, Setzer noted, departing from the MTA's plan would come with several complications.
As an example, if the NICE base fare stayed at $2.25 while the MTA's went to $2.50, it's not clear how a MetroCard user would pay the difference when transferring from a NICE Bus to an MTA subway. Setzer added that even if NICE chose to keep existing fares, customers would still have to pay the newly increased cost of a 30-day unlimited MetroCard -- going up to $112 from $104 -- with the MTA pocketing the difference.
"It's more complicated than it first appeared," said Setzer, who added that NICE officials continue to talk with those from the MTA to explore all options. "The problem is that if the MTA fare structure and the NICE fare structure are not identical, you run into these kinds of problems."
Ryan Lynch, associate director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit transit advocacy group, said one possible solution could be for NICE to keep fares steady and Nassau to reimburse the MTA for transfers.
"I don't see why that couldn't be done," Lynch said. "Riders in Nassau need to be protected."
MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said that NICE "has a choice" to establish its own fare structure within the MetroCard, just as the Port Authority does with its PATH and AirTrain customers or Westchester does with its Bee bus line.
"They don't have to use ours, and in fact can raise or keep their fares the same, should they wish," Ortiz said.
Setzer said one possible scenario could have fares go up for MetroCard users, but remain the same for cash customers.
NICE will make its recommendation to the committee in February, after learning how much state aid it is likely to get in 2013 and determining whether a fare increase is necessary, regardless of the MTA's plan.
Nassau Bus Transit Committee attorney Samuel Littman said committee members' role at the hearings will be "to listen and learn . . . see what NICE presents and determine if any action by the committee needs to be taken."
NICE customer Richard Clolery, who uses a 30-day unlimited-ride MetroCard, said he doesn't want to see Nassau bus fares go up, but understands "it could cause problems" if they don't.
"I just wish they didn't have to go up," said Clolery, 35, of Hicksville. "It could affect me quite a bit. I may have to cut back on some things."