Tony Horton, senior service manager at the Hempstead Transit Center, talks about all the precautions they take to keep the buses running during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Linda Rosier

Long Island's two major bus systems have been able to withstand the COVID-19 pandemic better than other public transportation providers in the region, but it could be years before their ridership returns to normal, officials said.

In contrast to the Long Island Rail Road and New York City subways, which have struggled to reclaim just a quarter of their riders, the Nassau Inter-County Express, or NICE Bus, and Suffolk County Transit (SCT) have both been operating for months with between 60% and 70% of their passengers. The solid ridership figures are a testament to the critical role the two transit systems have played in transporting Long Island’s essential workers, officials and advocates said.

“The backbone of the economy of Long Island, whether it be grocery store workers, restaurant employees, or health care workers who are on our front lines fighting this pandemic, are utilizing Suffolk Transit and NICE,” said George Basile, policy director for the New York Youth Transit Advocacy Committee, a Suffolk-based watchdog group.

Although they've lost fewer riders than other transit systems, NICE and SCT have not been spared the pandemic's financial pain. Because NICE and SCT have used rear-door boarding for months to limit contact between riders and drivers, both have lost millions of dollars in fare revenue.

NICE, which was transporting about 80,000 riders a day before the pandemic, suspended all fare collection from March 23 until June 27. It has not yet calculated how much it expects to lose in fare revenue in 2020. SCT, which was moving around 15,000 weekday riders before the pandemic, estimates it will lose $6.1 million in fares this year.

And although both counties’ transit systems have received federal grants to help make up for the losses — about $27 million for Suffolk and about $33 million for Nassau — the farebox losses continue to pile up.

“I would say that we’re in a little better position that many bus systems, but we still have a long way to go to get all our riders back,” said NICE chief executive officer Jack Khzouz, who remains confident that the 9-year-old transit system will eventually rebound.

“We need to remind them that it is still a fantastic value and a reliable way to get to where they need to go, that it’s a safe, and a great, option,” Khzouz added. “It may take two years to get back to where we were.”

The Rosa Parks Hempstead Transit Center — Nassau’s busiest bus junction — teems with activity at certain times of the day, even as NICE has instituted new COVID-19 safety protocols, including restricting access to the hub’s indoor spaces.

Cleaning crews scatter throughout the facility, spraying and wiping down benches, doors, windows, and handrails, and boarding buses to disinfect them whenever they pull up. NICE officials said most buses were sanitized several times a day, and were deep cleaned overnight.

Suffolk spokesman Derek Poppe said SCT buses, too, were “cleaned and sanitized daily upon return from service.”

Both agencies also said riders were complying with the state’s requirement to wear face masks while using transit.  At the Hempstead transit center last Friday, one rider was turned away when he tried boarding without a mask, and only allowed on after he accepted a free mask from a NICE employee. 

"We have distance between each other, and everybody's wearing their masks. So I feel very comfortable riding the bus right now," said bus rider Kathy Jones, 58, of Hempstead. "It's been a comfortable ride, and a safe ride."

But some bus riders remain uneasy — especially on more popular routes, where maintaining a safe social distance can be impossible. Home health care aid Niasia Starling, 23, of Hempstead, said she had been on standing room only buses on NICE’s busy N6 route throughout the pandemic.

“They try to pack the buses as much as possible, and it’s been too crowded … face masks don’t always do the job if they’re too close to you,” said Starling, who believes NICE should limit capacity on buses to the number of available seats.  “Once the seats are full, that’s it. You have to wait for the next bus.” 

NICE officials have said they had closely monitored bus capacity, and would deploy extra buses on crowded routes. Both NICE and SCT also have installed shields to isolate drivers from passengers.

While both bus systems are adding operating costs, uncertainty remains over how their future funding will be impacted by expected COVID-19 budget shortfalls in county and state budgets, from which NICE and SCT heavily rely on subsidies. Suffolk already anticipates a 20% reduction in state transit aid.

 Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said she remained "committed to ensuring that service remains available for all essential first responders," because public transit was tied to public health and safety. 

 “Many essential workers and first responders would not have been able to serve the public when we were at our most vulnerable if not for the NICE Bus system. From transporting frontline grocery store employees and nurses, Nassau’s ability to crush the curve and tamp down the coronavirus would have been seriously hampered without this key public transit component," Curran said in a statement.

Basile noted that NICE and SCT had struggled recently with budget cuts that had sometimes resulted in reduced bus service.

“Those cuts predate the pandemic. And, unfortunately, the pandemic is only going to make municipal budgets even tighter,” Basile said. “I can almost tell you for sure, it’s going to be on the table when it comes to budget cuts next year.”

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