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Bus riders' chance to speak on Veolia deal

The leadership of the Nassau County Legislature is

The leadership of the Nassau County Legislature is prepared to approve an LI bus takeover by a private firm, but County Executive Edward Mangano is taking another look at bids from two other firms. (Nov. 30, 2011) Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Long Island Bus riders will have the opportunity Monday to sound off on Nassau County's plan to privatize operation of the system that carries an average 100,000 weekday passengers.

The county scheduled a hearing at 1 p.m. at the Theodore Roosevelt Executive and Legislative Building, 1550 Franklin Ave. in Mineola, on the proposed contract with Veolia Transportation, of Lombard, Ill. Lawmakers and Veolia representatives are expected to attend.

Veolia is scheduled to take over the system on Jan. 1, pending approval by the county legislature and the Nassau Interim Finance Authority. LI Bus is to be renamed Nassau Inter-County Express Bus, or NICE Bus.

Ed Ward, a spokesman for Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt (R-Massapequa), said the legislature won't vote Monday night on the contract. The vote probably will be held Dec. 19, he said Friday.

"We like to allow the legislators to reflect on something they may hear at the hearing," Ward said.

Ryan Lynch, of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit rider advocacy group critical of the system's privatization, said his organization will give testimony against the new contract. The contract language gives Veolia the authority to amend schedules, including the power to cut bus service by up to 25 percent without county approval, Lynch said.

"We feel it gives too much power to Veolia," Lynch said.

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano has said privatizing the bus system's operation will save taxpayers millions of dollars and avoid massive service cuts that otherwise would have occurred under the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The MTA has operated Nassau's bus system since 1973, but the agency and the county parted ways earlier this year because of a funding dispute.

County officials have said the proposed contract protects riders' interests, pointing to a provision to appoint a five-member committee of Nassau residents who would review any proposed fare increase or service reductions.

Lynch, however, called the contract language "a toothless lion" because Veolia can pull out of Nassau County if the committee rejects its proposed changes.

On Friday, Ward said Schmitt would not discuss issues raised by the contract's critics before Monday's hearing.

Michael Setzer, the incoming chief executive of the new bus service, has denied that power over fares and service changes is tilted too much in Veolia's favor. Last month, Setzer said Veolia would have "little discretion" over changes in service and that only low-ridership bus lines might be cut.

The county retains "significant oversight, control, and checks and balances" over the bus system, Setzer has said.

With Keith Herbert

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