Nassau County needs a 21st century public bus and paratransit system. But to make that possible, a new funding approach for NICE that encourages service stability, innovation and improvement has to be created.
In the five years since NICE began operating, its budget has been on a roller-coaster ride. One year funding keeps pace with costs; the next year funding is down. Bus service is reduced one year; then service is restored.
Because the state, county and NICE budgets are all finalized on different schedules, months apart, NICE operates in financial limbo for nearly half the year. As a result, NICE starts each fiscal year with a budget and service plan that often do not reflect the actual dollars it will have to work with.
While service reductions have received a lot of attention, an unrecognized casualty of this random, uncoordinated process is innovation. Nothing is more emblematic of this problem than the comprehensive transit development plan NICE created for building a smart, sustainable system.
While a few initiatives have begun — such as the introduction of the longer, higher capacity buses, more flexible service and customer-friendly technology — for now the plan sits on the shelf as NICE deals with balancing its 2017 budget deficit. Nassau lawmakers and Albany appear to be working on a funding deal, but as previous years an agreement is still in flux.
The biggest wild card has been Nassau County’s funding. In the past six years, the county’s discretionary contribution, normally established in December, has been as high as $7 million and as low as zero. NICE’s state subsidy, which is more than 50 percent of its annual budget, is also unpredictable and is established amid Albany’s annual budgetary scrum, which is to conclude by Friday. Like the county’s portion, state support is up one year but unchanged the next, despite rising operating costs.
NICE’s transit development plan was designed to create a more robust, efficient and rider-friendly transit system that supports some of Nassau County’s most significant priorities: attracting and retaining younger residents with skills that help build the local economy; encouraging downtown transit-oriented development; creating stronger links to the LIRR and MTA subway and bus; and reducing traffic congestion.
The plan includes expansion of on-demand service; using bigger vehicles where ridership is heavy and smaller vehicles where it’s light; and replacing fixed schedules and routes with flexible demand-responsive models. In fact, NICE is a very efficient, heavily used system: 40 percent of its budget comes from farebox revenues, one of the highest ratios among the nation’s bus systems, and its cost to operate an hour of service is significantly lower than the MTA and other systems in the region. That means that under the public-private operating partnership formed to run its bus system, Nassau gets more service for every available dollar.
Most important, the local funding scenario needs to change. Being tied into Nassau County’s general fund means being at the mercy of the county’s ongoing fiscal challenges. Right now, public transportation, both in Nassau and Suffolk counties gets played off against other very important things like public safety, public health and recreation.
If the State Legislature would program a 2 percent annual increase in state aid for transit, or there was a new, reliable funding source like the MTA has, in any given year, NICE could plan whether it needs to reduce service, maintain service levels, or expand. And capital investments could be programmed smartly to support service development.
NICE needs to get off the funding roller coaster so it can avoid or limit future service reductions and conduct sensible planning. The system’s nearly 100,000 daily passengers deserve transit services that meet their needs today and tomorrow.
Michael Setzer is chief executive of Nassau Inter-County Express.