NICE bus officials have told drivers to not leave scheduled stops early after complaints from riders that the practice can strand riders for as much as an hour.
The Nassau Inter-County Express system of tracking on-time performance allows for buses to arrive and leave scheduled stops as much as five minutes earlier than the published times. A rider who misses a bus that left early must wait for the next bus, which can be an hour later, transit advocates say.
"The problem is that people come for their buses when it's scheduled to arrive on a certain time. They don't come early," said Charlene Obernauer, founder of the Long Island Bus Riders Union. "You wouldn't expect your 9 a.m. train to leave at 8:55."
NICE chief executive Michael Setzer said he doesn't hear complaints from riders about buses leaving too early, but some customers say it's a routine occurrence.
"It happens to me all the time," said Miguel Mack, 19, of Mineola, who takes the N40/41 to Queensboro Community College. Mack said he sees his bus pull away from his stop as he walks toward it a few minutes before the scheduled arrival time. "I just want it to come on the time that I see it [on the schedule]."
Of 13 buses leaving the Mineola Intermodal Center between 2 and 3 p.m. last Monday, three left one minute before their scheduled times, two left two minutes early, and one left three minutes early.
A NICE representative similarly monitored arriving and departing buses at Mineola on Wednesday and reported that 7 of 95 buses left a minute or more before their scheduled times. The earliest of those rolled out five minutes ahead of schedule.
NICE service quality managers subsequently advised drivers that they must not leave early, the agency said Friday.
"NICE's goal is to adhere as closely as possible to its schedule. That includes avoiding both early and late departures," the agency said in a statement. "Bus operators are instructed to maintain the schedule -- NICE agrees that there should not be instances of buses departing early that could affect some riders."
The riders union, a nonprofit advocacy group, in a report last month cited NICE's calculation of on-time performance as being as much as five minutes early or late.
Setzer said allowing buses to leave that early is more lenient than the industry standard of no more than one minute before a scheduled departure time. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operated Nassau's bus system for 37 years until Veolia Transportation took it over in January 2012, follows the industry standard of one minute.
Setzer said the on-time calculation method is used by the company hired to track NICE performance and that he intends to "tighten up" the policy.
"There's no benefit for us to arrive at a stop early and then leave early," Setzer said. "It would be counterproductive."
If a NICE bus is running ahead of schedule, the driver would know to slow down, and even pull over, before reaching the next stop, he said, adding that a driver running ahead of schedule would face disciplinary measures.
Felix Marine, 24, of Freeport, said he's become so used to buses leaving early that he routinely arrives at his bus stop 10 minutes early "just in case." He added, "Because, sometimes, they'll just take off."
Some riders may not be aware that a bus arrived and left early, instead thinking it's very late or never came at all.
NICE's systemwide on-time performance is around 80 percent, Setzer said, mostly from late-arriving buses.
Tracking buses' arrival times will become easier when a new real-time monitoring system, including global positioning technology, is installed on buses. NICE plans to select a vendor to design and install a system next month, and to have it operating by the end of 2014.