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NICE, citing budget deficit, eyeing service cuts again

Jack Khzouz, Chief Administration Officer of NICE Bus

Jack Khzouz, Chief Administration Officer of NICE Bus speaks with Nassau County Legislator Carrie Solages as they join local residents, bus activists and members of NICE Bus to celebrate one of the maiden trips of the new Elmont Flexi Route on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016, in Elmont. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Nassau’s bus operator, facing its latest seven-figure deficit, is proposing another round of service cuts — including potentially eliminating some routes that were just restored within the past few months.

Nassau Inter-County Express chief executive Michael Setzer said a public hearing will be held next month on a proposal to trim service to help close a budget hole that could be as large as $7 million.

And, because cuts typically target routes with the lowest ridership, Setzer confirmed in an interview Thursday night that some of the routes restored over the summer after NICE’s last round of service cuts in January would be the most likely to be cut again.

“Those routes have not grown in ridership after replacement,” Setzer said of the recently restored routes serving communities including Elmont, Rockville Centre and Freeport.

Setzer said the projected deficit is due to a combination of factors including rising labor costs, uncertainty over state transit aid and a reduction in Nassau County’s proposed subsidy to NICE, from $6.75 million this year to $3.75 million next year.

NICE does stand to earn some additional revenue from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s proposed increase of MetroCard fares, which could bring the cost of a bus ride to $3.00 from the current $2.75. But Setzer said extra farebox revenue alone won’t be enough to solve the agency’s latest financial crisis.

In January, NICE eliminated 11 routes to help fill a $7.5 million gap. But the next month, a $3 million bailout by Nassau allowed NICE to restore most of the service. Nassau lawmakers said at the time that it was essential that the county identify a sustainable funding stream for NICE to avoid similar problems next year.

“I wish things were more predictable, but I also understand that the county’s financial condition is much bigger than our particular issue,” Setzer said.

Brian Nevin, spokesman for County Executive Edward Mangano, said Friday he believed last year’s $3 million bailout was sufficient for NICE to keep existing service levels through next summer — at which point the county would know how much it would be getting in state aid next year.

He added that Mangano in September recommended a fare increase, but “Setzer stated it was unnecessary.” Setzer at the time told Newsday that proposing a fare increase was “premature.”

Nassau Legis. Carrié Solages (D-Elmont) said Friday eliminating recently restored routes “before the ink is dry” on their printed timetables is “ridiculous.”

“We just spent a lot of money on training these drivers, and taking that away would be foolish,” said Solages, adding that the proposed cuts would devastate Nassau’s economy and put some riders on the streets in the cold winter months. “This is unacceptable.”

Aaron Watkins-Lopez, a member of the nonprofit Long Island Bus Riders’ Union and of Nassau’s Bus Transit Committee, which oversees NICE, said the agency’s repeated fiscal crises were the result of “mismanagement” and overreliance on state funding, which makes up about half of NICE’s $131 million annual operating budget.

“How much money are we wasting because they can’t balance their budget?” Watkins-Lopez said.


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