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NICE riders face 'grim' service cuts, another fare hike

NICE buses sit at headquarters in Garden City,

NICE buses sit at headquarters in Garden City, Sept. 17, 2015. Credit: Johnny Milano

Nassau bus riders could face the deepest service cuts they've seen in years -- including the elimination of some routes -- and another fare hike as NICE looks to close a projected $7.5 million deficit next year, officials said Thursday.

The plan would raise the cost of a ride for cash-paying customers from $2.50 to $2.75 -- the amount already paid by MetroCard customers, who make up the majority of NICE's 100,000 daily riders. GoMobile app users would also see the increase.

The proposed service reductions would target several "inefficient" routes that carry relatively few riders, said Nassau-Inter County Express chief executive Michael Setzer, who identified nine such routes Thursday in a presentation to the agency's governing body, the Nassau Bus Transit Committee, in Garden City.

Of the nine routes NICE will "go after," Setzer said seven would be axed: the N14, N17, N50, N51, N62, N80 and N81. Service on the N2/8 and N46 would be reduced.

As an example of how inefficient the targeted lines are, Setzer pointed out that the N14, serving Rockville Centre, carries just five riders on average per trip. Transporting each of those riders costs NICE $5.52. The line makes up 0.1 percent of NICE's ridership.

"It's very valuable to the people who do ride the N14, but it's also incredibly expensive," Setzer said. "If we have to make priority decisions, then we suggest this kind of approach is the logical way to do it."

Bus Transit Committee member, and NICE customer, Aaron Watkins-Lopez called the situation "heartbreaking."

"The thing is, there's nothing left to cut. This is just picking at bones at this point . . . ," Watkins-Lopez said. He urged riders to reach out to their elected representatives to push for more funding.

"It is truly a testament to what happens when you privatize a public system," he said.

Setzer called the measures "pretty grim," but said they are necessary as the bus operator, owned by French transportation company Transdev, stares down its latest seven-figure budget gap. Contractual raises for workers and rising employee health care costs are expected to total $7.5 million next year.

Although NICE could receive millions in aid from the state, Setzer noted that the agency wouldn't know that until well into the first quarter of 2016. If it gets too little or no operating assistance from the state -- as it did this year -- by the time NICE found out, "the actions would have to be that much more drastic in order to be able to balance the budget."

Setzer noted that state operating aid has steadily decreased in recent years, and has not reached more than $6 million in operating aid to NICE since the company took over Nassau's bus system from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 2012.

"It would be pretty optimistic to think others will solve this problem entirely for us," Setzer said.

The proposed measures would need to take effect at the beginning of 2016. To that end, he urged the committee to set the wheels in motion, including by holding statutorily required public hearings in November, he said.

The proposed cuts and fare hike are expected to generate about $4 million -- just more than half the projected budget shortfall. NICE says it will work with the county and state to make up the rest.

It's the latest financial setback for NICE, formed after Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano in 2011 opted to privatize the county's bus system, which had been run by the MTA for 37 years. Mangano spokesman Brian Nevin said Mangano's administration is "concerned" about the situation and will study NICE's plan.

Mangano has said the move saved taxpayers $30 million a year, but transit advocates have said the profit-driven system, without adequate funding by the county and other levels of government, has often balanced its books on the backs of riders, most of whom earn low incomes.

Earlier this year, NICE had to use state money earmarked for new buses to help close a $5.3 million deficit, and canceled summer Jones Beach concert service.

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