Angry and impassioned Nassau bus riders pleaded Wednesday with county and transit officials to find a solution that will avoid the decimation of Long Island Bus.
"The inability of the MTA and [County Executive Edward] Mangano to work together to solve a problem is an outrage to the hardworking, decent people of Nassau County," said Romeo Gimeno, 59, of Elmont. "There doesn't seem to be a will or a desire to help the less fortunate."
Gimeno was among more than 300 people at a public hearing held by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority at Hofstra University to discuss the agency's plan to eliminate more than half of LI Bus' routes.
The transit agency, which plans to cut 25 of 48 LI Bus routes, says it cannot continue current operations because of inadequate funding from Nassau, which owns the system but contributes only $9.1 million to its $140 million annual budget. The proposed cuts would affect 16,000 of the system's 100,000 average weekday riders and about 200 more users of the Able-Ride paratransit service.
Mangano did not attend the hearing -- a fact that drew boos from the crowd when it was pointed out by a speaker. The county executive said last week he intends to pull LI Bus out of the MTA and turn it over to a private operator, a move he believes will mean more efficient operations.
At the more than seven-hour hearing, college students, low-income mothers, senior citizens and disabled customers offered sometimes tearful accounts of LI Bus' vital role in their lives. Kevin Christman, who has cerebral palsy and works as a teacher assistant in Roosevelt, said losing his bus is "unimaginable."
"You can't cut these services, because people like myself won't be able to work, won't be able to see our doctors," said Christman, 28, of Wantagh."Then we will be a drain on the county."
Lorenzo Simpson, student government president at Nassau Community College, said the proposed cuts would affect thousands of students -- many of whom chose the college because of its accessibility by public transportation.
Simpson quoted one student as saying, "If you cut the buses, my college career would be over."A spokesman for Mangano read a prepared statement from him, in which Mangano chided the MTA for wasteful spending, exorbitant employee salaries and high overtime.
"It is these lavish spending habits that have caused the MTA to cut Long Island Bus service in the past and have caused this hearing to take place today," Mangano wrote. "Let me be clear. The MTA is putting bus drivers out of work, not Nassau County."
Several speakers expressed skepticism over the possibility of privatizing LI Bus, particularly because Mangano has set aside just $4.1 million to support such a system.That could mean deeper cuts and higher fares, some speakers said.
A private operator would "come in here and chop, chop, chop, because they're going to want to come in here and make a profit. And there is no profit in public transportation," said Patricia Bowden, president of Transport Workers Union Local 252, the union representing LI Bus drivers.
During an intermission, MTA chairman Jay Walder said he was "impressed" with the speakers' grasp of the issues involved. Walder, who arrived at Hofstra by LI Bus, said those who spoke made clear the "significance" of the system to Nassau commuters.
"You cannot sit in the room and listen to the circumstances that are there and not feel badly," he said.