LI Bus gets new name, look, operator says

A preview of NICE bus, which will replace A preview of NICE bus, which will replace LI Bus when Veolia Transportation takes over operations of the bus system in Nassau County. Photo Credit: Handout

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Nassau County's newly privatized bus system will have a new name and look but will keep existing fares and all 48 of its routes, officials said Wednesday.

NICE Bus -- an acronym for Nassau Inter-County Express -- is the moniker as of Jan. 1 for Long Island Bus, the county-owned bus system that serves 100,000 daily riders.

County Executive Edward Mangano, at a news conference Thursday, will release long-awaited details of the county's contract with Veolia Transportation, just seven weeks before the Illinois-based company takes over.

County officials would not release information on NICE Bus' service levels other than to say the county will not implement the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's plan, proposed earlier this year, to close LI Bus' budget gap by eliminating more than half its routes.

Incoming NICE Bus chief executive Michael Setzer said no lines would be eliminated, though schedule changes would be made on several routes. That will mean less frequent buses on some lines, he said.

"When you see the contract, you're not going to see a list of cuts," Setzer said in an interview. "What you are going to see is a process and some standards that we could use to adjust service. Wholesale route cuts are not going to be part of our plan. But better scheduling will be."

Adjusting service levels is one way Veolia will reduce operating costs, Setzer said. Also, the NICE Bus workforce will be smaller than that of LI Bus, which has nearly 1,000 employees, he said. Veolia needs more bus drivers than LI Bus has to offer but will have fewer maintenance workers and administrative personnel than the MTA currently employs.

Able-Ride, the system serving disabled riders, will keep existing service levels through 2013, county officials have said.

According to a county news release, the current base bus fare of $2.25 will be kept in 2012, as Mangano promised when he announced Veolia as the operator.

"Nassau's public-private partnership with Veolia symbolizes a new, smarter and more efficient way of providing services in Nassau County," Mangano said in a statement. "No longer will the choices be limited to demanding more subsidies from taxpayers or slashing service. Today marks a new era of reliable service for riders, job opportunities for employees and reduced costs for local taxpayers."

The MTA has operated LI Bus for 38 years, and the system's annual operating cost is about $140 million. Under Veolia, that figure is expected to be $103 million, the county has said.

The huge transit agency parted ways with Nassau earlier this year over a long-running funding dispute. The MTA said it no longer would make up for Nassau's funding shortfalls and told the county it needed $26 million more a year to keep existing service levels. Mangano decided to privatize the operation, saying it could be run more efficiently and at less cost to taxpayers.

Mangano's office said the deal will lead to $32.4 million in annual savings. Nassau is reducing its subsidy to the system from $9.1 million annually to $2.6 million.

A selection panel assembled by Mangano chose Veolia from three bidders in June, but the county only released some details of the contract Wednesday.

Critics -- including several Nassau legislators, along with transit advocates and bus riders -- have assailed the county for not releasing the pact, with some linking the delay to Election Day.

The contract must be approved by the county legislature and the Nassau Interim Finance Authority. The county also has said it will hold a public forum.

Under the contract, the county executive will appoint a five-member panel of transportation professionals living in Nassau who will report quarterly and annually on NICE Bus operation and management, county and Veolia officials said. Fare hikes would have to be approved by the panel.

The county news release noted those decisions currently are made by the MTA board, which includes one Nassau representative.

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