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Editorial: Nassau running late for the bus

A preview of NICE bus, which will replace

A preview of NICE bus, which will replace LI Bus when Veolia Transportation takes over operations of the bus system in Nassau County. Credit: Handout

As the day quickly approaches when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will no longer operate Long Island Bus, the steps needed to make the transition to private vendor Veolia Transportation Inc. keep getting pushed off.

Nassau is now in a painfully weak negotiating position: If the county doesn't operate and fund buses Veolia's way, it either won't operate buses at all on Jan. 1 or will do so via the MTA, the scenario that pushed Nassau to privatize in the first place.

The contract, promised to the public by August, was not unveiled until this month, two days after Nassau legislative elections and hours before county offices closed for a three-day weekend. Then a public hearing planned for this past Thursday had to be canceled because it was improperly advertised, which meant a vote on the contract by the full legislature, planned for Nov. 28, also had to be postponed.

Now the public hearing is set for Dec. 12, and the vote is slated for Dec. 19 -- 12 days before the county is set to lose the MTA as its bus operator. What would Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano do if the legislature rejected the contract? More important, what would the residents who depend on Long Island Bus, many of them elderly and disabled, do? It's likely that the MTA would continue to oversee operations for a time, but if Nassau were able and willing to afford that, privatization never would have come up.

If the contract made public Nov. 10 were a masterpiece of tough negotiating for the county, these fears might not be so pressing. Instead, it seems to favor Veolia so strongly that approving the agreement is as scary as rejecting it.

Mangano sought the bids of private companies after a protracted battle with the MTA over how much Nassau should pay the agency for its bus service. Nassau is the only suburban county that has its buses subsidized by the MTA, which demanded the subsidy stop and the county boost its contribution from $9 million this year to $35 million next year.

Mangano, who says the MTA is bloated and overbills the county for services, refused. He sought proposals and chose Veolia, a hugely successful international transportation conglomerate.

There is no reason to believe Veolia won't be a competent and effective manager. The MTA may have been spending too much to run LI Bus.

But this contract protects Veolia far more than the county, allowing the company to walk if it's not satisfied with the revenue it's getting or the routes it's asked to maintain. Any fare hikes and most route cuts Veolia might seek must be approved by a county committee, but Veolia can get out of the contract if it doesn't get what it requests. The company can also cut service on any route by 25 percent at any time without approval.

In short, Veolia appears to be under no obligation to provide service or fares comparable to what Long Island Bus currently offers if it can't make a profit doing so, a very likely scenario. If such an impasse is reached, the county will have to pay a higher subsidy to maintain service.

Nassau's management of this transition to a private operator for Long Island Bus has, thus far, been both opaque and ham-handed. Everyone hopes Veolia will offer good service at fair rates. Forcing the company to do so contractually, though, would be a lot better option than hoping.


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