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Bus advocates push to restore funds to 'heartbeat of Nassau'

The 2010 Nassau County budget passed yesterday with a $1.4-million cut to Long Island Bus despite earlier efforts from transit advocates to maintain the agency's funding.

Representatives from groups including the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, Vision Long Island, and the Long Island Federation of Labor gathered at the county legislative building in Mineola, before legislators voted on County Executive Thomas Suozzi's proposed 2010 county budget.

Officials initially proposed cutting its contribution to LI Bus' annual budget by nearly 27 percent from $10.5 million - what it has been for several years - to $7.7 million.

Calling the system, "the heartbeat of Nassau County," transit advocates said they learned Monday that county officials had reduced the size of the cut to $1.4 million, or 13 percent.

"This shows that Nassau County legislators do care about Long Island Bus riders, but we're only halfway there," said Kate Slevin, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. "Long Island Bus is already cut to the bone . . . And we're still worried that if we don't get the full funding from the county, it will lead to service cuts."

Nassau County, which owns the bus company, has engaged in a funding dispute over LI Bus for years with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the agency.

Each side has its own interpretation of the original deal establishing the unique structure of the agency, with an annual budget this year of $132 million.

To avoid any cuts, transit advocates Monday proposed three different options to county lawmakers. One was to divert money from a $15-million fund to fill current county job vacancies. Another was to take money from the county's contingency fund. The other involved keeping several county departments' budgets at 2008 levels and using the difference to restore LI Bus funding.

Suozzi has said that he believes Nassau County has no business running a bus company, and he has urged the MTA to take over full ownership and control of the agency. His office has also noted that, with the newly implemented employer payroll tax that is allocated to fund transit, the county is actually setting aside more money for the MTA than in previous years.

But transit advocates said Monday that, considering the importance of public transportation to many of Suozzi's initiatives, including the Lighthouse project, the county should be increasing - not cutting - its contributions to transit.

LI Bus saw a ridership record of 32.6 million customers last year and recently rolled out 100 state-of-the-art buses to help address the boom.

"The people who are going to be most affected can't be here to represent themselves. They're out riding the buses to get to work," said Tawaun Weber, spokeswoman for Vision Long Island. "This bus system is so integral. It's like the heartbeat of Nassau County."

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