An N47 Long Island Bus turns onto Hempstead Turnpike in...

An N47 Long Island Bus turns onto Hempstead Turnpike in East Meadow. Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

Nassau's controversial move to ditch the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Long Island Bus division -- in favor of a private operator still to be named -- marks more than just another chapter in the current fiscal crisis.

If carried out as now intended after Dec. 31, the change would break a long, historic trend that goes well beyond the county's borders.

For the first time in its 43 years, the mammoth MTA would be shedding one of its transit systems outright.

Until recently, the MTA story seemed to be going in the opposite direction -- expanding its reach in the name of regional improvements and consolidations.

As head of a transit advisory panel, Richard Ravitch, before serving as lieutenant governor, called in 2008 for proposed new toll revenue that would create a new MTA Regional Bus Authority "as the single entity responsible for bus service in the metropolitan region." Soon there was follow-up talk about whether the MTA could or should take over from county contractors in Suffolk and Westchester.

Only three years earlier, the MTA took control of what had been sputtering private operations in Queens, which operated under such names as Jamaica Coach, Triboro and Queens Surface. All over the city, a generation earlier, private operators went belly-up and the public agency took over so service would survive. And today, they do not run without substantial subsidy, experience suggests.

In one sense, the refusal of Edward Mangano's administration to increase the county's subsidy to the MTA, and its decision to turn instead to private contracting, would set the clock back to the early 1970s. That was before Nassau Executive Ralph G. Caso, in conjunction with the state MTA, moved to take over service from troubled bus companies with names such as the Stage Coach, Utility Lines and Rockville Centre Bus, and run them as a public system under what was then the Metropolitan Suburban Bus Authority.

Patricia Bowden, president of Transport Workers Union Local 252, which represents Long Island Bus employees, said, "It was privately operated until 1973 and it didn't work, and I don't think it will work now."

The civic rationale for the state's establishing an MTA in 1968 was to link and coordinate transit modes in the region. So right at the start, it knit together a big network: The city Transit Authority, the Manhattan and Bronx Surface Transit Operating Authority and the Long Island Rail Road, as well as the Penn Central and New Haven railroads, the Staten Island Rapid Transit, and the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.

But the immediate issue involves tax dollars -- as well as the fraying fiscal patchwork that is today's MTA.

Nassau has refused to pay the MTA subsidies for bus service comparable to those provided by Westchester and New York City for their buses.

Ironically, it is the cash-crunched MTA that could come out ahead fiscally if Long Island Bus goes the way of Stage Coach and Rockville Centre Bus.

What kind of leverage will that leave the county in signing up a less expensive replacement? What kind of service will the new operator provide? Those questions might launch a whole other chapter in the story of regional mass transit -- or at least, in the odd fiscal annals of Nassau County.