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Suffolk seeks bump in state funding for bus service

Passengers board a Suffolk County Transit Bus in

Passengers board a Suffolk County Transit Bus in Lake Grove in this Oct. 1 2012 photo. Credit: Ed Betz

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has asked Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for a nearly 50 percent bump in state funding for the county's bus system -- pointing out that Nassau gets a lot more money while contributing a lot less.

In a letter to Cuomo dated March 10, Bellone requested $10 million in new state funding for Suffolk County Transit, which carries about 22,000 passengers every weekday. Bellone said in the letter that the additional funds were not only needed, but would address "an issue of equity."

"Other suburban counties such as Nassau and Westchester receive up to five times the amount of state funds that Suffolk County receives," wrote Bellone, who noted that Suffolk is coming off its largest increase in service in its history with the addition of Sunday bus service on several routes.

"However, much more needs to be done," Bellone wrote.

Cuomo's office did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for the state budget office said officials are "reviewing County Executive Bellone's letter."

The disparity in state transit aid between Long Island's two counties has long stuck in the craw of Suffolk administrations. Of its bus system's $57 million annual budget, $29 million -- more than half -- comes from county subsidies. The state kicks in about $22 million annually.

To compare, Nassau contributes $2.6 million to the $113 million annual budget of the Nassau Inter-County Express, or NICE Bus, but gets $57 million from the state.

Westchester County puts about $19 million annually into its Bee-Line Bus system, and gets $47 million from the state.

"This is really just pointing out what I think has been a long-standing issue that Suffolk County is getting less funds than surrounding counties, and pointing out that this is a top priority for us," Bellone said in an interview Thursday.

Bellone noted that in addition to the new Sunday service, which was largely funded through a $2 million increase in state aid last year, the county has plans for several new transit initiatives.

He said Suffolk is working on a mobile app to let riders pay their fares using their smartphones, and is moving ahead with plans for bus rapid-transit lines in the county, which would operate on dedicated lanes along busy north-south corridors such as Route 110.

Ryan Lynch, associate director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit transit-advocacy group, said "good behavior should be rewarded" at Suffolk County Transit, which has increased its ridership by almost 40 percent since 2001.

Lynch said one of Suffolk's historical challenges in getting state funding is the fact that its bus system is far smaller than Nassau's, which carries about 100,000 weekday riders.

"The further east you get, it operates much more like a rural system," Lynch said. "But that doesn't make it any less important."

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