Faced with what he called the MTA's "threat" of pulling its funding from Long Island Bus, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano said Wednesday he is looking into privatizing the ailing county bus system in the hope of cutting its costs.
Mangano's announcement came two days after Metropolitan Transportation Authority sources said the agency plans to pull all financial support from LI Bus in its 2011 budget, which is set to be released next week.
"It is just outrageous that the MTA would consider eliminating this funding and stranding about 100,000 riders without any way to get to work, college or to see a doctor," said Mangano, adding that he has "no choice" but to look for ways to keep LI Bus alive without the MTA's help. "I am offended by the MTA's threats and pure arrogance."
Long Island Bus is owned by Nassau County but largely subsidized by the MTA, which has operated the system since 1973. Without the $40 million that the MTA usually kicks in each year, transit sources say the agency would likely fold altogether.
Until about 10 years ago, Nassau County made up the difference of Long Island Bus' budget after fare revenue and state aid. But over the years, the county has gradually decreased its subsidy. This year, the county is paying just $9.1 million of LI Bus' $133 million budget.
Mangano's plan entails forming a committee to explore the possibility of severing its relationship with the MTA and privatizing LI Bus. Mangano said he expects to put out bids for private bus operators over the next month.
MTA spokesman Jeremy Soffin said the MTA would welcome the privatization of LI Bus.
"The bus system belongs to Nassau County, and if the county believes a private company can run the system more effectively than the MTA, it should pursue that opportunity," Soffin said. "In any case, what is clear is that the MTA can no longer afford to assume the county's responsibility to fund its bus system."
But Ryan Lynch, spokesman for the nonprofit Tri-State Transportation Campaign, which supports improved bus service in the region, was skeptical of a privatization plan, in part because public transportation generally is not a profitable venture. For a private company to break even, he said, it may have to increase fares significantly.
"All options deserve consideration, but we do not think this is a solution to Long Island Bus' woes," Lynch said. "A better solution would be for Nassau County, the state and the MTA to come together and figure out a long-term funding agreement that would avoid these annual funding battles."
Martin Burke, whose family owned the Queens Surface Corp. bus system before the MTA bought it out in 2005, said that privately operating a bus system can be cheaper than doing so through the MTA.
MTA sources have said that they might be willing to keep LI Bus running if Nassau committed to gradually increasing its subsidy. Mangano said it is "just unrealistic to think we can come up with any substantial amount of money when we're in the red."