Some 25 of LI Bus' 48 lines will be axed in July under the plan, which would leave entire communities such as Bethpage, Elmont and Lindenhurst with no bus service. Two more lines will lose weekend service.
"I can't tell you that people will not be hurt by this. People will be hurt by this," MTA chairman Jay Walder said in an interview Tuesday. "We can only provide the services that are being funded."
Walder said the bare-bones bus services are all the MTA can afford to run, given that Nassau County contributes only $9.1 million to the bus system's $141-million annual budget. By comparison, Suffolk pays about $24 million toward its bus system's $48.6 million budget.
MTA officials say the service cuts will save $12.2 million a year, including salaries of more than 200 LI Bus employees who will be laid off. Walder said the cuts target lines with the fewest passengers. Service for about 85 percent of riders will be kept.
Because Nassau's paratransit bus service - Able-Ride - mirrors fixed bus routes, about 18 percent of disabled bus riders also face losing their transportation.
Walder said the decision follows several failed attempts for more than a year to convince County Executive Edward Mangano that Nassau must give LI Bus the same support other counties give their bus services.
"The reality is in this case the county has a mismatch. It has put in the funding for one level of service, but it expects a level of service that is much larger than that," Walder said.
Until about 10 years ago, Nassau made up the shortfall in Long Island Bus' budget not covered by fare revenue and state aid. But more recently, the county has decreased its subsidy. In 2009, Nassau cut its contribution from $10.5 million to $9.1 million.
Mangano has said the county, facing a $176-million budget deficit, cannot afford the additional $24 million the MTA says it needs to maintain existing service. He is exploring hiring a private vendor to operate the system, which has been run by the MTA since 1973.
In a statement, spokesman Brian Nevin said Mangano is "disappointed in the MTA's decision to cut 56% of Nassau bus routes." He added that Mangano will review the MTA's plan, as well as proposals from three vendors who have bid to take over the bus system, and "determine what plan best serves our taxpayers, riders and economy."
Walder emphasized that the cuts come only after the MTA has cut administrative costs at LI Bus by more than a third during the last year. The agency has even been reusing old bus parts and selling surplus material to be more efficient, he said.
"At the end of the day, even at the lowest possible costs, it's costing more than the county is providing," Walder said.
Kate Slevin, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit group that has advocated for LI Bus riders, implored elected officials to stave off the cuts.
"It's devastating," Slevin said. "These are people who are struggling as it is - a lot of the working poor, lots of students, lots of senior citizens who can no longer drive."
The MTA will hold a public hearing regarding the proposed cuts on March 23 at Hofstra University at 3 p.m. Walder said he would "welcome" county officials to join him at the table to hear from riders.
The MTA board will vote on the plan in April.