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LI Bus saved for 2011 by $8.6M from state

An N47 Long Island Bus turns onto Hempstead

An N47 Long Island Bus turns onto Hempstead Turnpike in East Meadow. Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

Long Island Bus has been saved until the end of the year by an $8.6-million state bailout, officials said Friday after striking a deal in Albany.

As part of the surprise announcement, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano set Jan. 1 as the date a private company will take over operation of the county-owned bus system from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The county has received three bids for the contract.

Senate Republicans and state officials said the money did not go through the recently completed budget process, but came from a capital fund over which the State Legislature has control. Senate Republicans initiated the funding, officials said.

The deal was announced jointly by the Senate, the MTA and Mangano. The transit agency will continue to operate LI Bus at full service levels through December.

Evan Cohen, executive director of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, declined to comment Friday on the LI Bus privatization plan. The state oversight agency, which has taken control of the county's finances, must approve all county contracts of $50,000 or more.

Severe cuts proposed by the MTA would have affected 16,000 of 100,000 daily bus riders and about 200 users of the Able-Ride paratransit service. More than 200 LI Bus workers would have lost their jobs.

News of the rescue sent a ripple of relief through customers, though some said they worry what will happen to their service in January.

"I'm ecstatic!" said Bonnie Hill, 19, who lives with her mother in a North Bellmore homeless shelter and takes the bus to Nassau Community College in Garden City, where she is a second-year liberal arts student. She said it would have taken her an hour to walk to the nearest bus line if hers had been eliminated. "I just hope that the private company, they will see how hard the hardships are," she said. "I hope and pray that they leave things as they are."

State Sen. Charles Fuschillo (R-Merrick), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said the Senate worked with the MTA to try to avoid service cuts and layoffs.

The $8.6-million infusion is equivalent to what the service cuts would have saved the MTA this year, agency spokesman Jeremy Soffin said.

Before Friday's deal, the MTA had planned to eliminate more than half of LI Bus' 48 lines, blaming inadequate funding from the county -- a matter of dispute for years. While Nassau owns the bus system, it gave only $9.1 million last year to LI Bus' $140-million operating budget.

The MTA had said it could not continue to operate LI Bus unless the county paid about $25 million more per year. Under the proposed cutbacks, 25 routes were slated for elimination, and service would have been reduced on two others.

At an MTA hearing on March 24, nearly 100 bus and Able-Ride customers described in heartbreaking detail how the service cuts would affect them.

Long Island Bus riders, employees and transit advocates also have protested Mangano's plans to privatize the system for fear it will result in service cuts and higher fares.

Pat Bowden, president of Transport Workers Union Local 252, the union representing LI Bus employees, applauded the state aid but said it was only a short-term fix.

"The idea that privatizing this public service at the end of the year will be a solution to the county's transportation problems is completely misguided," she said in a statement through a spokesman.

In a statement, Mangano said he will work with the MTA to ensure a smooth transition to a private operator in January. "This public-private partnership will enable us to provide comparable bus routes at a much more affordable rate to Nassau County taxpayers," he said.

With Michael Amon

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