Bus riders were dissatisfied with the Nassau Inter-County Express -- despite service upgrades in 2013 and the promise of major technical innovations this year that include the ability to pay fares with a smartphone, according to a new report.
In its recently released "scorecard" for the third quarter of 2013, NICE recorded an overall customer satisfaction score of 29 percent -- down sharply from 52 percent during the same period in 2012, the year Veolia Transportation took the system over from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Other scores also dropped, including for cleanliness of buses and bus stops, and on-time perception, which measures customers' views on buses' punctuality. NICE hired French research firm Ipsos to conduct the survey of 800 bus riders.
NICE officials said they were confounded by the findings. Rider advocates blamed poor system conditions and insufficient service for their increased dissatisfaction.
"They're not the ones that are actually dealing with buses on a daily basis," said Aaron Watkins-Lopez, organizer for the Long Island Bus Riders Union. NICE's insufficient service levels can result in crowded commutes and uncomfortable bus stops, he said.
Some routes with low ridership have no weekend service, while others have hourlong waits between buses at midday.
"And since they're unhappy with the conditions, it makes their waits seem longer," said Watkins-Lopez, suggesting that NICE officials not dismiss the latest satisfaction data.
NICE chief executive Michael Setzer called the low numbers "puzzling and frustrating."
"I'm fairly sure it's not reflecting a change in performance, but it does reflect what people think, which is important," said Setzer, noting the drop-off in customer satisfaction began around April when NICE adopted the MTA's 25-cent hike on bus trips paid with a MetroCard. "I don't know if that's the cause, but it might be a contributing factor," he said.
Setzer said internal data show NICE buses are punctual 80 percent to 85 percent of the time, but noted those figures are not very reliable because they are taken from a small sample of only 50 rides. NICE deems a bus arriving more than five minutes after its scheduled time to be late.
Setzer said there was no evidence that buses have been running later than usual in recent months, and noted that other, more quantifiable measures of NICE's performance show improvement.
They include NICE's accident rate, which fell 15 percent in the third quarter of 2013; its number of bus breakdowns, which fell about 14 percent; and the number of buses not dispatched within 10 minutes of their scheduled time, which dropped from 57 in the third quarter of 2012 to zero in the same period in 2013.
NICE's Able-Ride door-to-door service for disabled riders, for which there are more reliable statistics, also saw on-time performance improve to 90 percent in the third quarter of 2013 from 83 percent in the same period in 2012, officials said.
NICE is operated by Veolia Transportation, which took over Nassau's bus system in January 2012.
Setzer said he expects 2014 to be a better year for NICE because of some system investments made in 2013, including the replacement of one-third of its Able-Ride fleet and approval of an $8 million contract to install new global-positioning systems on vehicles.
The technology, which will allow NICE and its customers to track buses in real time, should be in place by late 2014, officials said. NICE officials have said the technology would allow them to accurately measure on-time performance, and also add extra buses if others are running late.
Another NICE initiative will allow riders to pay fares using a smartphone application, which Setzer expects to be rolled out early this year.
The biggest factor in how 2014 unfolds for NICE may come in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's proposed state budget this month, which should give NICE a preview of how much to anticipate in state funding.
A $5 million boost in state aid last year allowed NICE to add service on several routes, but Setzer warned that the new service could be in jeopardy if state aid is reduced.
"That's the big unknown," said Setzer, adding that he hopes to keep service and fare levels the same throughout 2014 for NICE's 100,000 daily riders. Setzer doesn't expect NICE will raise fares in 2014.
It is uncertain how much Nassau County will contribute to its bus system. The county budget includes $2.6 million this year for NICE, which has a $113 million annual budget. The GOP-controlled legislature has said it would consider increasing that amount midyear.
Meanwhile, a new study by New York University's Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management and by Appleseed, a nonprofit advocacy group, said NICE generates $73 in economic activity for every $1 Nassau spends on the system.
NICE is also directly and indirectly responsible for some 1,490 jobs in Nassau, according to the study commissioned by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit watchdog group.
Campaign associate director Ryan Lynch said the report should serve as a call to the state and Nassau to spend more money on bus service.
"They can have all the technology in the world," Lynch said, but "if the buses are coming every 45 minutes, it's not convenient for people."