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Drive a smart deal on LI Bus

Customers board the N72 Long Island Bus to

Customers board the N72 Long Island Bus to Farmingdale at the Rosa Parks Bus Terminal in Hempstead (July 19, 2010) Credit: KEVIN P. COUGHLIN

The people who rely on Long Island Bus don't care who runs the system for Nassau County. They just need affordable, dependable rides, and not to be taken for one.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority will run its last Long Island Bus route on Dec. 31, after it demanded Nassau either raise the amount the county kicks in annually from $9 million to $36 million or see 53 percent of its routes canceled. County Executive Edward Mangano decided to privatize the system and is negotiating a five-year deal with Veolia Transportation to operate the service. Mangano trumpets the fact that the agreement will keep routes and fares unchanged through the end of 2012. What about the following four years?

Veolia is a massive international firm with a good reputation. It operates many successful public bus systems, including those in Las Vegas, Atlanta and New Orleans, and has smart ideas for how to increase Long Island Bus ridership and customer satisfaction while lowering costs. Smaller buses, lower insurance rates based on fewer accidents thanks to better training, increased fuel efficiency on the part of both drivers and buses, and flexible routing that sends out vehicles when people need them rather than on an expensively inflexible schedule, have all been part of Veolia's success elsewhere. There's reason to believe such initiatives can create welcome savings in Nassau, too.

Veolia's preliminary proposal offered to run Long Island Bus for $106 million per year -- $36 million less than the MTA currently spends -- which would allow Nassau to kick in just the $2.5 million to $4 million per year necessary to maintain state aid. If those terms can be reached, it will be a boon for a county besieged by financial troubles, and for riders who have endured some route cuts and barely escaped others.

But if it can be done, the county and Veolia need to commit to it for five years, not just one, in the current contract negotiations. County officials have said service cuts and fare increases after next year will only be considered as a last resort. A proper deal would banish the fear of last resorts altogether.

Veolia will operate by setting a fee per hour of usage with Nassau, then providing as much busing as the county asks for. The fear is that a politically palatable deal will be inked in which Veolia operates at a loss for 12 months, then either massively hikes fares or slashes bus and Able-Ride service to make the last four years profitable. Either scenario would tear a hole in the social safety net the system provides riders. The risk of it happening should grab the attention of the state, which kicked in $52 million in scheduled funding to Long Island Bus last year, then another $8.6 million in emergency money.

Such bailouts can't be counted on in the future. Nassau needs to drive a strong, fair and entirely clear bargain with Veolia that maintains appropriate service levels for the full five years of the contract, at a reasonable price. If such a deal can't be reached, Nassau should go back to the two other qualified companies that bid.

What the county can't afford to do is accept a teaser rate for Long Island Bus that skyrockets later in the contract, forcing the county to either gut service, increase fares drastically, pull funding from other programs or plead for a state bailout it doesn't deserve and likely won't get. hN