The multiple budget cuts that Long Island Bus is facing from all directions could lead to deeper slashes in service than the eight bus lines already pegged for elimination - cuts that advocates say would be felt most by those who can afford them least.
"We absolutely need more attention to this issue," said Kate Slevin, executive director of the nonprofit Tri-State Transportation Campaign. She added that the agency's ridership - many of them low-income workers with no cars, senior citizens and community college students - "are very vulnerable."
"And they deserve more attention than they receive," she said.
The service cuts already adopted will leave riders in Merrick's south shore without a bus line, force N80 riders to make long hikes to get the N81, and complicate trips for many high school and college students who rely on Long Island Bus to get to class.
And, barring a decision by the Nassau Legislature to restore a $1.4-million reduction in aid, significantly more cuts are on the way, Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesman Jeremy Soffin said.
At the mercy of subsidies
With the smallest slice of the MTA's total ridership - and of its overall budget - Long Island Bus has long been seen by transit advocates as the agency's stepchild. That perception, however, is belied by Long Island Bus' ridership record of 32.6 million in 2008 and a reputation in transit circles for smart use of its budget and equipment, rolling stock that is generally older than that of other MTA bus companies.
Long Island Bus' unusual management and funding structure has made it particularly vulnerable to harsh budgetary measures. The MTA even threatened a 75 percent fare hike last year, before settling on a 10 percent increase.
The agency's most recent troubles only began with the cuts that the MTA board approved Dec. 16. Those cuts slashed $600,000 from Long Island Bus' budget in 2010 and $1.3 million in each of the following years through 2013.
On top of that, the state cut its aid to Long Island Bus for this year by $2 million. And Nassau County reduced its annual subsidy from $10.5 million to $9.1 million for 2010.
In total, the cutbacks mean a $4 million chunk out of Long Island Bus' $135 million budget for this year. Because Long Island Bus is the most highly subsidized of the MTA's transit agencies, the reductions take a heavy toll on operations.
And it's harder to make up any budget decreases through paying customers. Long Island Bus gets only 30 percent of its operating revenue from fares, compared with New York City Transit's 52.5 percent and the Long Island Rail Road's 44 percent.
Few officials in its corner
MTA board member Mitchell Pally, of Stony Brook, said it is apparent that Long Island Bus "doesn't get the attention" of other transit services. In part, he said, that is because of the bus line's inadequate representation.
Since MTA board vice chairman David S. Mack of Great Neck, first appointed in 1993 by then-Gov. George Pataki, resigned his seat in September, the board has been without an appointee by the Nassau County executive. Long Island Bus, unlike most other transit agencies, also does not have a dedicated commuters council under the MTA's Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee.
Pally said Nassau "has not been fulfilling its obligations" to fund the system and that he hopes that changes on newly sworn-in County Executive Edward Mangano's watch.
Former County Executive Thomas Suozzi said in a recent interview that he "always supported Long Island Bus" and noted that when the subsidy is combined with more than $3 million the county government is paying in a newly imposed payroll tax, Nassau is contributing more toward the MTA than ever before.
Mangano was not available for comment. In October, he told LetThereBeLightHouse.com that mass transit is "integral" to the county's future and that the county's subsidy "is small compared to the number of people who rely on public transit . . . and put that money back into the local economy."
Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick) said he could support a plan to increase county funding of Long Island Bus, but he noted that it was the Democratic Legislature that restored half of a $2.8-million cut to the agency proposed by Suozzi.
The Republican-proposed county budget, co-sponsored by Mangano, aimed to restore just $1 million.
Solutions for long haul
A long-term fix for the struggling agency may involve the MTA taking ownership of Long Island Bus as part of a regional bus authority that also could include bus systems in Suffolk and Westchester.
Many of those weighing in on the Long Island Bus debate agree that such a plan would create a more streamlined and cost-efficient bus system. But the plan has failed to gain traction in Albany.
A bill sponsored by state Sen. Craig Johnson (D-Port Washington) to create such a system is being considered. A spokesman said Johnson remains "committed to seeing this measure become law and improve mass transit options for all Long Islanders."
The MTA's proposed five-year capital plan includes funding for a study to create a regional bus authority.
"I think there's enough positive things in the proposal that it makes sense," said William Henderson, executive director of the MTA's Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee. "Eventually, it will get done."