A rider boards a NICE buses at the Roosevelt Field...

A rider boards a NICE buses at the Roosevelt Field bus depot. (Feb. 15, 2012) Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

The private company that took over Nassau County's bus system last month is planning service cuts in April to close a $7.3 million budget shortfall, officials said Thursday.

Officials of Veolia Transportation said the NICE Bus service cuts should come as no surprise. Details will be revealed at public meetings next week.

"We knew that we were going to start the year at one level and we were going to have to find more . . . [money] over the year," said Mike Setzer, chief executive of the Nassau Inter-County Express Bus system. "We've managed to squeeze a lot of costs out, but we still have some work to do."

NICE will not eliminate any of the 48 lines it took over from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on Jan. 1 but will put fewer buses on "routes that are least used by customers and are thus the most expensive to operate," according to a notice on the NICE website. Any approved changes would take effect in early April.

Setzer said company officials believe the proposed cuts will cover the gap and avoid further cuts this year.

Veolia has already cut costs by $35 million compared with the MTA's projected costs if it were still running the system this year, he said. A new fuel purchase contract saved $800,000 a year and eliminating some jobs reduced compensation costs.

Setzer said he expects to find more savings, including from investing in efficient new technology. But without service cuts, the cost of running NICE Bus is still projected to be about $7.3 million more than the $106 million budget in the contract county lawmakers approved in December.

As far back as September, Setzer said that without an increased subsidy by the county and without a fare hike -- which is contractually prohibited in 2012 -- Veolia would probably have to reduce service to balance the NICE Bus budget.

Still, Legis. Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) said he did not expect Veolia to announce service cuts so soon after taking over, and before it can be reviewed by the county's Transit Advisory Committee. That five-person committee, which will oversee NICE Bus, has not been chosen yet.

Abrahams said he and other lawmakers asked Veolia about lines that were vulnerable to cuts before the company took over, but were told that Veolia had not figured that out. He's not sure he believes that anymore.

"To me, to be six weeks into the process without the TAC committee in place and proposing cuts gives the impression that you knew these cuts were going to take place before you even took over the system," Abrahams said.

Setzer denied the company was "hiding the ball," saying, "We truly didn't know what we were going to do." He said Veolia will speak to the committee, but "it's important to get this public consultation started."

Veolia officials have said the reductions will be far less drastic than the MTA's proposal last year to eliminate half of Nassau's bus lines to save $12.5 million.

Veolia also plans to increase service in some parts of the system, including by adding new express routes to Queens that will shave several minutes off passengers' commutes.

Charlene Obernauer, executive director of the nonprofit Long Island Jobs for Justice, said the cuts are a result of Nassau refusing to adequately fund the bus system. Nassau contributes $2.5 million.

"Regardless of who is running it, without that commitment, we're going to get service cuts," Obernauer said.

County Executive Edward Mangano, who engineered the privatization, responded in a statement, "The buses ran yesterday, are running today and will continue to run tomorrow."

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