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New GPS systems rolled out to help track LI buses

Service quality manager Marjorie Chin keeps an eye

Service quality manager Marjorie Chin keeps an eye on NICE bus operations from the command center in Garden City on Monday, Dec. 22, 2014. Photo Credit: David L. Pokress

Technological innovations, including GPS tracking systems, on buses in Nassau and Suffolk could change the way Long Island transit users get around in 2015, officials said Monday.

The Nassau Inter-County Express, or NICE, and Suffolk County Transit have begun installing computer-based Automatic Vehicle Location systems on their vehicles. They expect that, by the end of 2015, bus dispatchers will be able to monitor the exact location of all vehicles -- as will riders using mobile applications.

"We're just about finished with the hardware part of this. The software part, of course, is the more significant part," said NICE chief executive Michael Setzer, who noted that nearly 90 percent of the agency's 308 buses have already been fitted with the new global positioning system-based technology. "It could be very useful to be able to see that their bus is still 2 miles away -- so that they don't have to stand out in a blizzard."

Although it could take several more months before the "NICE Integrated System" is fully functional, Setzer said riders are already seeing benefits. They include new audio and visual messaging systems on most buses.

Customers have long complained that the old messaging systems, which were mileage-based, were either inoperable or inaccurate on many buses. The new, GPS-based systems are clear and accurate, Setzer said.

Bus drivers are also already benefiting from a new Internet-based communication system, replacing antiquated and unreliable 800-megahertz radios. Setzer said the new system ensures constant contact between drivers and dispatchers.

Meanwhile, Suffolk County Transit is moving ahead with parallel efforts to install computerized location technology on its buses. The systems are already in place in most Suffolk County Accessible Transit vehicles, and installation will begin next month on the county's 158 fixed route buses, said Suffolk's acting director of transportation operations Garry Lenberger.

Suffolk is separately moving ahead with a $2.7 million plan to replace its 12-year-old fare boxes with state-of-the-art systems that will allow riders to use smart cards or mobile phones to pay for their rides. Lenberger said he expects the technology to be in place by the end of the summer.

"It's really come a long way," Lenberger said of bus tech.

Aaron Watkins-Lopez, organizer for Long Island Bus Riders Union, a nonprofit advocacy group, said the technological advancements mean that 2015 will be "a really big year for both NICE and Suffolk County Transit."

But, Watkins-Lopez said, even as the bus systems improve, they should not look to balance their budgets "on the backs of riders." Both NICE and Suffolk County Transit are considering fare increases in 2015.

NICE will likely adopt the MTA's planned 4 percent MetroCard increase. Suffolk wants to raise the cost of a ride to $2.25, from $2 in the spring.

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