County leaders announced $3 million in new funding for the Nassau Inter-County Express bus system last week, saying they hoped the money would be used to restore 11 routes that were eliminated last month.
NICE is operated by Transdev, a private company that county officials selected in 2011 through a competitive bidding process. The Nassau County Bus Transit Committee, comprising five members appointed by County Executive Ed Mangano and four members appointed by the County Legislature, oversees the system and makes decisions on service- and fare-related issues. In an effort to reduce a $7.5 million budget deficit, bus service officials eliminated 11 of 48 routes — including the N46, N50, N51, N2/8, N14, N17, N62, N73/74, N80 and N81 — on Jan. 17.
The transit committee held a public hearing to address the NICE budget gap on Nov. 19, and approved the service reductions afterward. At the meeting, NICE CEO Michael Setzer recommended that the board cut a number of routes and raise the price of both the cash and NICE Go Mobile App fares from $2.50 to $2.75, equaling the Metropolitan Transportation Authority fare.
The cuts affected roughly 2 percent of daily commuters, or approximately 100,000 people, according to NICE spokesman Andy Kraus. Taken together, he explained, these poorer-performing routes provided about 2,000 weekday rides, while the busiest provide 50,463 rides.
However, NICE and county leaders alike said they were inundated with phone calls from residents of communities like Valley Stream, Elmont, Franklin Square, Baldwin, Rockville Centre, Merrick and East Meadow when the routes were cut.
Judy Sanford, a north Valley Stream resident, was a frequent rider of the N2/8, which ran in a loop from Green Acres Road up Dutch Broadway in Elmont. After the route was cut, she had to find alternate ways to get to Green Acres Mall and her doctor’s office. Her post-NICE travel challenges convinced her to inform legislators about the difficulties for many residents who rely on public transportation.
“I suggested that the legislators take a ride on the buses that go through their districts and learn something about the people who are there — then you don’t call it an inconvenience,” Sanford said.
Community members’ complaints prompted Mangano and legislators on both sides of the aisle to take action. A bipartisan coalition gathered in Mineola on Feb. 10 to announce the plan to spend $3 million of what Mangano called a $45 million county surplus from 2015 to restore the bus cuts. (The remaining $42 million will serve as a backstop in case Nassau does not meet the Nassau Interim Finance Authority’s spending or revenue targets.)
“We think, collectively, that it is a wise thing to do,” Mangano said. “The Legislature’s determined desire to provide for our ridership resulted in this wonderful partnership and bipartisan agreement … We want a transportation system that our ridership can depend on.”
Later this month, NICE officials will recommend a restoration plan to the administration and the Legislature.
Setzer said he looked forward to collaborating with county leaders, and that NICE officials would consider their concerns as well as those of riders they’ve heard from in recent weeks. In formulating a plan, he said, officials would re-evaluate the bus lines that were cut and recommend ways to restore them — which wouldn’t necessarily mean running them the same way they ran before. Some may be re-routed, and their schedules may change, Setzer said. Ultimately, he explained, NICE’S goal is to use the county funding in the smartest possible way.
“We will be looking to use this $3 million to serve as many people as possible and to use taxpayer dollars as efficiently as possible,” he said. “We like to put service out and carry passengers rather than take it back in, so we are really pleased.”
While saying that NICE officials would move as quickly as they could, Setzer added that the restoration of eliminated routes “can’t quite happen overnight.” The bus service will have to hire and train new drivers, recertify decommissioned buses and meet necessary federal and labor requirements. As a result, he said, it will take a minimum of 60 days to bring back any bus line.
On Jan. 7, Legislator Carrié Solages, an Elmont Democrat, held a press conference outside a bus stop at the corner of Hempstead Turnpike and Dutch Broadway. He expressed his displeasure with the cuts, and urged residents to call the county offices and demand that they be reinstated.
“I’m very happy that there was a bipartisan agreement to restore services,” Solages said. “I received many phone calls on this issue, from parents who were very upset that their children’s schedule going to Nassau Community College was disrupted, or [their] work schedule was disrupted.”
Solages said that judging by the number of phone calls, he knew that the number of people affected exceeded the figure that the county expected.
Not only do commuters of all ages need public transportation to get to work, school and doctors’ appointments and to go shopping, the legislature’s minority leader, Kevan Abrahams said, but Nassau residents should be encouraged to take the bus to areas like the soon-to-be reopened Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
Setzer said that more than half of NICE’s revenue comes from the state, and that Gov. Andrew Cuomo budgeted $66 million for the service in his 2016-17 budget. Legislator Laura Curran, a Democrat from Baldwin who Mangano said has been active in busing issues, said she plans to ask State Assembly members to pass legislation that would impose what’s known as the E-911 surcharge in New York City, and add a few cents to Nassau residents’ phone bills.
Curran said that money collected from such a surcharge could be used as recurring revenue for the bus system. In the meantime, she said, county residents should know that officials are aware of their concerns about the buses.
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