Suffolk County is considering privatizing its bus service or changing some routes to reduce the costs of operating of its public transportation system.
County Executive Steve Bellone in his proposed 2013 operating budget directed his staff to analyze three options for Suffolk County Transit: renegotiating bus vendor contracts, restructuring routes to focus on high-demand areas and "examining alternative methods of service delivery, like Nassau County."
Nassau last year hired Veolia Transportation to run its bus system, which had been operated for 37 years by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano has said the arrangement will save taxpayers $26 million a year. The Nassau Inter-County Express bus carries an average of 105,000 riders per day. Suffolk County Transit averages about 22,000 riders each day.
Bellone spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter said the analysis cited in the budget is "to determine the best way to deliver this service so we can improve transit opportunities and get the most out of each taxpayer dollar." She said it was not the intention of the county to cut service to riders, but acknowledged that some routes could be "streamlined."
Bellone on Sept. 21 unveiled his $2.77 billion budget for 2013, saying it was balanced. Estimates earlier in the year pegged Suffolk's budget deficit at as much as $530 million.
Suffolk expects to spend $28 million on its bus system next year -- more than half of the $63.2 million operating budget for Suffolk County Transit, which also gets funding from fares and state aid. Bellone said the county's contribution has nearly doubled since 2005, when it was $15 million.
Nassau contributes $2.5 million to its bus system, which has a $113 million budget.
Ryan Lynch, associate director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit transit advocacy group, said Nassau pays less toward its bus system mainly because the state contributes so much -- $54 million compared with the $23.4 million in aid to Suffolk.
But Lynch cautioned Suffolk against copying Nassau's model -- noting that Veolia made $7 million in service cuts less than six months after taking over the system.
He urged state lawmakers from Suffolk to fight for increased aid to the county's bus system, which, he said, should be looking to expand service, not contract it.
"When you have service cuts, you see reduced amounts of ridership. And when you have service increases, you see increases in ridership. It's the 'If you build it, they will come' scenario," Lynch said. "It's always good to look at how you can make your system more efficient, but it can't be done at the expense of service levels."
Baird-Streeter said the Tri-State Transpotation Campaign would be invited to take part in the county's analysis of cost-cutting measures for the bus system.
Eric Alexander, executive director of Vision Long Island, a Huntington-based smart growth group, said restructuring some routes could be an improvement, if it resulted in easier transportation to job centers.
Alexander also said that Suffolk could use more state aid, but added that it's historically been a smaller priority among state lawmakers in Suffolk than in Nassau, in part because riders don't speak up as much.
"It's not just about having ridership, but having people who are vocal and will say they want buses to go to the right place," Alexander said.
Suffolk Legis. Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk), chairman of the county's Public Works & Transportation Committee, said a profit-driven private operator could lead to deep service cuts on routes with few riders and fare increases.
"I definitely can see that if Nassau's model turns out to be relatively successful with millions of dollars in savings, there will be some momentum toward doing that here," Schneiderman said. He would fight such a plan, he said, but was "not sure at the end of the day I'd win."
State Sen. Charles Fuschillo (R-Merrick), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said Bellone has not asked for increased state aid and that Suffolk's 2012 subsidy from the state had not been determined. Transit aid to Suffolk increased this year by $1.5 million, he said.
"We would do whatever we can to help the residents of Suffolk," Fuschillo said.
Patrick Foust, 43, of Mastic Beach, said he hoped service would not be cut.
"It's dependable. It's usually on time. It works for the little guys," he said while waiting for a bus outside a county government building in Riverhead. "If anything, they should have more buses."
Huntington resident Mario Raylando, 51, also said he hoped any changes wouldn't reduce bus service. "I don't like it," he said while waiting for a bus at the Walt Whitman mall on Route 110. "I'll have to walk everywhere."
In his budget, Bellone said the skyrocketing costs of operating buses already threaten his Connect Long Island plan, which involves creating "bus rapid transit" lines for major north-south corridors in Suffolk. Bellone is scheduled to detail his plan at a bus symposium in Hauppauge on Friday.
"At the current cost of providing services, these improvements are not feasible," Bellone wrote of the Connect Long Island proposals.
Suffolk this year enacted its first fare increase in two decades, hiking the cost of a bus ride from $1.50 to $2 on most lines. Riders on two East End lines pay $2.25 per trip.
With Mitchell Freedman
and Deon J. Hampton