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Enhanced bus systems could offer smoother, faster ride

Commuters board the MTA Long Island Bus N6

Commuters board the MTA Long Island Bus N6 at the Hempstead Transit Center. (March 17, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The problem: Slow, bulky buses;

inconvenient system with weak north-south links on Long Island; poor funding.

The fix: Sleek buses with low floors to ease boarding; bus-only lanes; more north-south routes; two-county bus

system under MTA.

Moving Long Islanders smoothly through north-south corridors will require in the coming decades the creation of a robust and fast-moving bus system in both counties, transit experts say.

So-called bus rapid transit systems have already changed the face of transportation in several American cities, including parts of New York.

Unlike the slow, ungainly buses that most Long Islanders are used to, rapid transit systems can include dedicated lanes, devices that allow buses to change traffic lights, a system to collect fares before riders board buses, and sleeker buses with low floors, so riders can board more quickly.

"They're 21st century transportation options," said Kate Slevin, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. "They look more like trains, in some ways, than buses."

The MTA already has some bus rapid transit systems in place, including in the Bronx, where the "Select Bus" line that offers more peak hour buses and prepaid fares reduced the travel time of riders by nearly 20 percent. A similar system along Manhattan's 34th Street, implemented last year, has also sped up bus service some 17 percent there.

MTA board member Mitchell Pally said he expects bus rapid transit to be in place in some parts of Long Island in the next seven to 10 years. No one has done current cost estimates for the plan, which would be funded in future MTA capital plans.

One likely candidate to get such a system is Route 110, where the MTA is working with local, state and federal governments to create a transit hub at the site of a Republic Airport LIRR station that would be reopened. The MTA hopes to begin work on the so-called "transit village" in the next five to 10 years.

The state-of-the-art bus system could help carry commuters up and down the busy Route 110 corridor, where an estimated 20 percent of Suffolk's workforce is employed.

A faster and more reliable bus system on Long Island could help address limited transportation options between the North and South shores, making it easier, for example, to transfer between the Ronkonkoma and Babylon lines at several points on Long Island, transit experts say.

But some bus advocates say such improvements will require a major overhaul in the way Long Island's two county-owned bus systems - Long Island Bus and Suffolk County Transit - operate. Financially strapped and ill-equipped to run a transit agency, officials in both counties have long sought to unload their bus systems on the MTA, which already operates and helps fund Long Island Bus.

And so transit advocates say the future must include an MTA regional bus authority that would absorb both systems - and possibly also Westchester's Bee Line - under one streamlined agency funded through a combination of fares, taxes and other government funding.

The MTA already has funded a feasibility study expected to take place this year for such a program, and advocates say the system could begin to come together within the next five years.

But Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy is not optimistic. He said the window of opportunity closed when the State Legislature failed to act on the recommendation of a governor-appointed panel.

"The money doesn't seem to be there," Levy said.

For now, Levy said he would settle for an increase in state funding to put his system on the same footing as Nassau's Long Island Bus, which he said received $57 million in state aid in 2008, while Suffolk got only $22 million.

Status: Progress hampered by the system's fundamentally difficult finances.

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