About 2,000 Nassau bus customers are a week away from losing their rides to work, school, and medical appointments, as NICE moves ahead with plans to ax 11 bus routes and cut service on two others in order to deal with a perennial funding crisis.
While Nassau Inter-County Express officials say the sparsely used routes are taken by a small percentage of its 100,000 daily customers, riders and advocates say they provide a critical lifeline to those that use them.
Those users include patients who rely on the N17 to get to Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Centre; people who live in or work in Suffolk County and count on the N80/81 to get them as far as Massapequa; and commuters who take the N50 to connect to the Hicksville Long Island Road Station.
For Natalie Dupuy, the N2/8 is the first and last leg of her daily commute to the Hunter Business School in Levittown, where she is studying to become a nurse.
“I have to get to school. There’s nothing else I can do,” said Dupuy, 37, who says she often struggles to get a seat on her bus, which is filled with others like her: Low-income people who are just getting on their feet and trying to make ends meet, she says.
Shrinking a $7.5 million deficit
Officials with Transdev, the private operator hired by Nassau to take over its bus system in 2012, say they don’t take lightly the Jan. 17 cuts, which are necessary to help shrink a $7.5 million budget deficit driven by increasing labor and employee health care costs.
The cuts and a 25-cent fare increase that took effect earlier this month will generate less than half of that deficit, officials say. The operator still hasn’t figured out from where the rest of the needed cost savings will come.
“We recognize that this service is vital to people. We hate cutting this service. We don’t have a choice,” said NICE chief executive Michael Setzer. “The policy decisions are made by the county. This is a county bus system with a private operator.”
Asked for a response, a spokesman for County Executive Edward Mangano provided a statement from deputy county attorney Samuel Littman, who presides on NICE’s governing body, the Nassau Transit Committee.
Littman noted that the routes on the chopping block had been pegged for elimination in 2011 by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which ran the system for 35 years.
“A handful of riders”
“While we understand the inconvenience it presents to a handful of riders, alternate routes are available,” Littman said. “Traditionally, New York State provides additional transportation funds annually and Nassau is seeking such for 2016.”
But those increases have shrunk considerably in recent years, including in 2015, when Nassau saw no increase in its transit operating subsidies from the state.
Republican state lawmakers in the GOP-controlled Senate have said that while they support local transit and plans to expand it, it is not their role to bail out systems because of underfunding from the counties that are responsible for them.
“It is critically important, especially as we continue to come out of this downturn in the economy, that the counties not shortchange our bus systems and our riders, and make sure we continue to provide the same quality bus service going to the future,” state Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola) said. “They’ve got to make a commitment of resources.”
Political scramble to save routes
With the clock ticking down to the largest elimination of bus routes in Nassau in six years, some Democratic Nassau lawmakers have been scrambling, hoping for a last-minute reprieve. Legis. Carrié Solages (D-Elmont) asked Mangano to put off the cuts at least until April to buy time to potentially renegotiate Transdev’s contract or come up with a new dedicated revenue stream for NICE, such as a fee to allow Uber to operate in the county.
In a letter Friday to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo asking for help, Legis. Judith Jacobs (D-Woodbury) raised other ideas, such as selling ad space on bus shelters and purchasing smaller buses that will cost less to run, a move Suffolk County is considering as it faces similar funding shortfalls for its bus system.
“A bus brings people to the train and the train brings people to work. Buses also bring our constituents to schools and to work,” Jacobs wrote. “Education and labor are the backbones of any economy, and we are significantly restricting access to these fundamentals by cutting and neglecting NICE Bus service.”
Setzer said that stopping the planned service cuts now would be unrealistic and could result in even deeper cuts later in the year if additional revenue isn’t found. But even if NICE did come into some extra money, Setzer said it would be best used adding service on NICE’s busiest routes, where it could benefit the most people.
In 2011, as the MTA was demanding $26 million more annually from the county than the $9.6 annual subsidy Nassau was providing, Mangano made the decision privatize the county’s bus operation. Last year, the county contributed $6.3 million to NICE and plans to do the same this year. That’s less than 5 percent of NICE’s $131 million annual budget, about $47 million of which comes from fares.
NICE says bus system still nicer
NICE officials maintain that, despite escalating costs, Nassau is still saving about $43 million a year, compared to having the MTA continue running the system.
But transit advocates say the consistent underfunding of Nassau’s bus system is a direct result of its privatization. NICE has faced deficits in all but one year since its formation in 2012, even as Transdev has averaged profits of around 2 percent each year. Transdev said in September it was targeting $3.8 million in profits last year.
“This is a public service, not something to make money off of. We’re putting profit over people,” said Aaron Watkins-Lopez, organizer for the Long Island Bus Riders Union, an advocacy group. “Bus riders are being left out in the cold without bus service, but this company is nice and dry and well-padded in their wallets.”