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NICE OKs 25 cent fare hike for MetroCard users to close budget gap

Commuters waiting on line about to board a

Commuters waiting on line about to board a bus at the Rosa Parks Transportation Center in Hempstead on Jan. 23, 2015. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Most Nassau County bus customers will pay 25 cents more for their ride beginning in March after NICE approved its second fare hike in less than a year last night.

After a pair of public hearings at Nassau Inter-County Express' Garden City headquarters Thursday, the seven-member Nassau Bus Transit Committee -- NICE's governing body -- greenlit a plan to raise the cost of a MetroCard fare to $2.75 from $2.50, just as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority did last week.

Despite NICE chief executive Michael Setzer recommending a 25 cent increase for all riders, including those paying in cash or with NICE's mobile app, the panel chose to limit the hike to MetroCard users, who make up about two-thirds of NICE riders.

In a bipartisan agreement last year, the Nassau County Legislature vowed not to raise fares in 2015 for cash customers.

But the NICE transit committee said it would revisit a broader fare increase if NICE cannot find a way to close a $5.5 million budget gap.

The MetroCard hike would bring in only $600,000 a year, according to NICE.

"It would take quite the leap of faith to assume that somebody else . . . would completely close that gap," said Setzer, adding that even with a fare hike for all riders, "drastic" service cuts will be necessary without more government aid. "I think we've agreed in the past that's the worst possible way to balance a budget."

But NICE's latest budget woes -- coming after a 25 cent fare hike in September for cash customers -- earned the agency little sympathy from several speakers at the public hearings.

"When businesses want more income, they try to sell more of their product," Valley Stream resident Nancy Dwyer, 80, told the committee. "Your product is bus seats. So why would you ever make it harder to afford a seat on your bus?"

Aaron Watkins-Lopez, organizer for the Long Island Bus Riders Union, a nonprofit advocacy group, said the hike will force many low-income riders to have to choose between spending an extra $130 on getting to work, or on heating their homes.

"I'm urging you not to make the decision to dip into the pockets of the people who can't afford to have you in there," said Watkins-Lopez, who called the hike a "Band-Aid" on a bigger problem of Nassau not adequately funding its own bus system. "You have a deficit, you raise the fare, and six months later you have a deficit again. So you raise the fare again . . . We're basically going nowhere."

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