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NICE: $3.3M budget gap could spur service cuts

Nassau's bus system projects higher expenses due to

Nassau's bus system projects higher expenses due to a rise in prices for natural gas, which fuels both buses and facilities. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Nassau's bus system faces a $3.3 million budget deficit and without increased funding from the county or state, NICE will seek service cuts to fill the gap, agency officials said Wednesday.

Nassau Inter-County Express chief executive Michael Setzer will present details of the system's 2014 operating budget at a Garden City meeting Thursday. The budget projects expenses of about $122 million -- $3.3 million more than the agency expects to receive from state and county aid and farebox revenue.

Setzer said Wednesday that the increase is due to the rising cost of natural gas, which NICE uses both to heat facilities and fuel buses, increasing employee health care benefit costs, and a contractual 3 percent raise for workers that will cost the agency $1.4 million.

Meanwhile, NICE expects an increase of state aid -- its largest revenue stream -- of $1.2 million. Nassau, which owns the system, contributes $2.6 million to it. Without a sizable increase in funding from the county or the state, NICE will look to "midyear service adjustments" to reduce expenses, the agency said.

"I still think there's been enough success there and this is an important enough public service that, between the state and Nassau County, we'll find a way," Setzer said.

On Monday, bus advocates pressed the county legislature to increase funding for NICE, noting that neighboring counties contribute significantly more to their bus systems while receiving less state aid. Suffolk gets about $22 million for buses from the state, while subsidizing Suffolk County Transit with about $29 million in county tax dollars.

Nassau Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) said Wednesday that she has been "engaged with the riders, bus company and the county administration to try to find ways to ensure and enhance bus service."

The projected 2014 budget shortfall comes after NICE enjoyed an $8 million windfall in 2013 -- a combination of $5 million in increased state aid and $3 million from a fare increase for MetroCard users. NICE put the found money toward the largest service improvements in years, including the creation of the N4X express bus along a busy South Shore route.

Setzer said, if forced to cut service, NICE would "take a fresh look" at underperforming lines.

Ryan Lynch, associate director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit transit advocacy group, said Wednesday the NICE budget gap makes it more important that Nassau develop a new, sustainable funding stream for its bus system.

"We can't be putting riders in situations where they're constantly in fear of service cuts or fare hikes," Lynch said.

In 2012, the year Veolia Transportation took over the bus system from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, it also made $7.3 million in service cuts, mostly targeting low-ridership routes. NICE said the reductions impacted about 1,000 riders.

NICE said safety improvements, which bus advocates want after two recent attacks on N6 line drivers, would be funded through county capital funds, not NICE operating money.

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