Nassau bus fares and service levels will stay where they are the rest of this year now that NICE has filled a $5.3 million budget gap using increased funding from county and state money earmarked for capital improvements, officials said.
The Nassau Bus Transit Committee, which oversees the Nassau Inter-County Express, or NICE Bus, unanimously voted Thursday to give final approval to the system's $128 million 2015 operating budget. The committee in March conditionally approved the budget, with the understanding it would revisit the matter after the state passed its budget, which NICE officials hoped would include increased aid to help fill its budget gap.
NICE had warned that, without a new revenue source, the county might have been forced to increase fares for cash and mobile app users to $2.75, from the current $2.50, and make drastic reductions in service.
"There wouldn't be a little trim here and a little trim there. They would probably include whole routes," NICE CEO Michael Setzer told the committee. "That's why I'm glad we're not doing that."
Still, NICE faced seven-figure operating deficits in 2012 and 2014. And Setzer acknowledged that increased labor costs and other obligations, and dipping ridership, could drive up the agency's budget again next year.
Although the state, for the first time in at least four years, did not increase operating assistance to NICE, Nassau plans to convert $3.8 million in state capital aid for transit into operating funds.
Setzer said that while NICE does also have a capital budget deficit, it has already purchased new buses this year and is relying on increases in federal and state aid next year to help meet its future capital needs.
Nassau also increased its subsidy to NICE by $1.5 million, bringing its total contribution to about $6 million annually -- the most it's kicked in since NICE took over Nassau's bus system from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 2012.
Setzer said NICE's parent company, Transdev, also plans to cut administrative costs by about $500,000 to help close the gap, but assured that the internal belt-tightening would be "invisible" to riders.
While applauding Nassau for stepping up with added funding to avoid service cuts and fare hikes, Anita Halasz, spokeswoman for the nonprofit Long Island Bus Riders Union, warned that a long-term funding solution was necessary to avoid a similar situation in the future.
"It's going to happen again. There's going to be another budget shortfall, and this really isn't accounting for any room for growth in the next couple years," Halasz said. "We want to make sure that when additional support comes, it's not to fill budget deficits. It's to increase services for riders."