Nassau's door-to-door paratransit system, Able-Ride, must take riders anywhere its...

Nassau's door-to-door paratransit system, Able-Ride, must take riders anywhere its regular bus routes go, including in Queens and Suffolk. Credit: NICE Bus

Nassau bus riders with disabilities no longer have to make transfers to reach locations in Queens and Suffolk under a recent federal ruling, officials said.

The Nassau Inter-County Express earlier this month disclosed an order by the Federal Transit Administration that said NICE’s door-to-door paratransit system, Able-Ride, must transport riders anywhere its regular bus routes go, including to some neighborhoods in Queens and to Farmingdale and South Huntington in Suffolk.

The new mandate, handed down late last year, will add more than $3 million to Nassau’s annual transit operating budget, which is climbing by $14 million overall this year, according to NICE.

NICE CEO Jack Khzouz said under “an arrangement that had been there for 25 years,” Able-Ride previously transported passengers only as far as the county’s boundaries, where they would have to transfer to another paratransit vehicle operated by the local transit system — Access-A-Ride in Queens, and Suffolk County Accessible Transit, or SCAT, in Suffolk.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • The Federal Transit Administration told Nassau bus operators that riders with disabilities can no longer be forced to make transfers to reach locations in Queens and Suffolk.
  • Disability right advocates said the old system discouraged some riders, and called the new system a "game changer." 
  • Nassau bus officials said they quickly implemented a program to get into compliance, but called the new system inefficient. It is expected to add more than $3 million to Nassau’s transit budget.

Federal officials “decided that was not appropriate ... so we quickly implemented a program to get that into compliance,” Khzouz said at the Nassau Bus Transit Committee meeting on May 9, acknowledging the new operation is “very, very inefficient.”

“Our paratransit vehicles now are traveling all the way into Jamaica, Flushing, Far Rockaway to deliver service. For those of us in transit, that’s a long 'deadhead' one way,” added Kzhouz, using industry parlance for a return trip without any passengers.

An FTA spokesperson, in a statement, confirmed the federal agency sent the county a "corrective letter ... explaining its obligation to provide paratransit where its fixed-route bus system crosses jurisdictional boundaries and instructing it to do so."

The new policy is a “game changer” for people with disabilities, said Michael Ring, board member of Disabled in Action of Metropolitan New York, an advocacy group. Ring said the direct Able-Ride service to and from Queens will mean more people with disabilities can now take a bus to Jamaica, where they can transfer to the Long Island Rail Road or subway system to get to jobs in Manhattan.

"The transfer system, they had discouraged anyone from using it. It was impossible," Ring said.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, paratransit operators — like NICE’s Able-Ride — must provide riders with appointment-based, door-to-door service within a 3/4-mile radius of any fixed bus route. Able-Ride serves about 5,500 riders a week, with recent ridership exceeding pre-COVID-19 levels, according to NICE.

NICE estimates that the change will cause Able-Ride’s operating hours to climb 18%, to 255,000 in 2024, up from 216,300 in 2023. At a cost of around $62 an hour to the county, the change accounts for an additional $3.3 million in NICE’s $167 million operating budget — up from about $153 million last year. Higher driver wages, insurance coverage and other costs contributed to the increase.

In a statement, Nassau Bus Transit Committee chairperson Dawn Falco said: “As an ongoing effort to service the Constituents of Nassau County, particularly those with the most need ... NICE will be absorbing the time and cost of providing extended services outside of the County lines to eliminate additional transfers for said riders.”

Since 2012, Nassau County has hired private contractor Transdev to operate its transit system. Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman, through a spokesperson, declined to comment. NICE gets 71% of the funding for its operating budget from state aid, 19% from fares, and only around 2% from the county.

Khzouz said the change will “put a strain” on NICE’s operation. But accessibility advocates said it was riders with disabilities that were being strained by having to transfer from one vehicle to another — sometimes with a wheelchair — to complete a trip.

“It can be nerve-wracking at times,” said Therése Brzezinski, director of planning and public policy for the Long Island Center for Independent Living in Levittown. More than just changing between vehicles, paratransit riders traveling beyond Nassau’s limits would be changing between transit agencies, with different operators, policies and technology.

“It just adds another layer of complexity to what is already a lot of hoop-jumping, frankly, that people with disabilities have to get their transportation,” she added.

Ring encouraged NICE to find ways to make the operation more efficient, including by outsourcing paratransit trips to private operators with accessible vehicles, including Uber drivers. 

Kzhouz said NICE officials "don't know what demand is going to peak at" for the new direct service to locations in Queens and Suffolk.

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