NICE Bus has pulled the plug on a program that let disabled customers ride regular buses for free.
Following a model used successfully by the MTA, the Nassau Inter-County Express early last year began letting customers of Able-Ride -- its door-to-door paratransit system for the disabled -- ride fixed-route buses at no charge.
The goal was to reduce use of Able-Ride, which officials say is expensive to operate. But that didn't happen, prompting NICE to discontinue the incentive on Aug. 15.
"Since there was no decrease in Able-Ride ridership, we know that the number was quite small," NICE spokeswoman Katherine Heaviside said yesterday. " . . . Without a measurable shift in ridership from Able-Ride to the fixed-route buses, no savings would be realized."
NICE said it has been notifying people about the change as they call to reserve Able-Ride trips.
Longtime Able-Ride user Craig Salzman, who had been taking advantage of the free-ride incentive for some trips, said he got the news while trying to board a regular bus last week.
"I flashed my ID like I always do and the driver tells me, 'Oh, that program has been discontinued,' " said Salzman, 46, of East Meadow, who has epilepsy. "I had to get off the bus because I had no change on me, and the driver was not willing to let me on. . . . I was embarrassed."
Legis. Judith Jacobs (D-Woodbury) said she was disappointed to learn that NICE had discontinued the free rides.
"Why in the world would you stop something that has no extra cost for NICE and, in fact, would only make it more humane for the people who rely on it?" she asked.
Federal law requires transit operators provide paratransit for disabled riders, but doing so can be very expensive because of high labor and vehicle maintenance costs, and low per-vehicle ridership.
NICE said in 2013 it spent $60 to operate an Able-Ride vehicle for an hour. In that hour, each vehicle averaged 1.4 riders.
Able-Ride provides about 400,000 rides a year, officials said. The fare is $3.75.
To reduce paratransit costs, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 2013 began issuing free Metro Cards to Access-a-Ride customers, with the hopes that those who could would take advantage of standard buses whenever possible. The MTA has since issued more than 85,000 Metro Cards to paratransit-eligible riders.
"We have seen a decline in paratransit trip demand. But there are various factors involved, and we cannot attribute this solely to the incentive at this time," MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said.
NICE noted that Able-Ride customers are welcome to continue using fixed-route buses, paying the disabled fare of $1.25 -- half the standard fare.
Because the alternative is going back to long waits for being picked up and dropped off by Able-Ride, Salzman said he'll, reluctantly, do just that.
"We get public transportation as second-class citizens," said Salzman, who has epilepsy. "It's disgusting."