Nassau County will pay a private company $2.6 million to run the public-owned Long Island Bus starting Jan. 1, the day the MTA turns over the keys after four decades, according to long-awaited contract details released Thursday.
The proposed new service will be called the Nassau Inter-County Express—NICE for short—and fares will remain at $2.50 through 2012, although it is unclear if riders will still be able to use their Metro Cards. Fare hikes after that would require unanimous approval from a new five-member committee overseeing the service, and the company will be subject to quarterly report cards graded by riders.
“I know it’s possible to provide a public sector service with a private sector mindset,” Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano said at a news conference inside the Able-Ride-LI Bus Garage in East Garden City.
The proposed contract with Illinois-based Veolia Transportation was submitted to the county legislature this week and will be subject to its first—and so far only—public hearing at a date that has yet to be set. The agreement must also get the approval of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, a state watchdog that declared a fiscal crisis earlier this year.
Union workers, bus riders and transportation advocates have been calling for details on the privatization plan from Mangano and legislators for months. The Republican county executive expressed confidence that the contract will be approved by the GOP-controlled legislature within the next seven weeks.
“We will be ready to roll on January 1st,” said Mike Setzer, the CEO of NICE. Mark Ashton, a transportation consultant Mangano hired for the transition, said: “The only thing different is the buses will be more reliable, more on time and cleaner.”
Mangano proposed the public-private partnership after talks broke down with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which wanted the county to increase its $9 million annual contribution by $26 million to keep Long Island Bus going or it would cut more than half of the routes.
The company said it’s been studying the bus system and rider habits since June while looking for potential efficiencies. Veolia has so far agreed to hire 300 of more than 800 Long Island Bus employees and expects to have jobs for most of those who apply.
Union leaders said many unanswered questions remain amid the continuing negotiations with Veolia.
“With just seven weeks before the NICE begins operations, Nassau County has failed to engage with the union regarding the rights of its members who are entitled to job security, wage and pension protections,” said Pat Bowden, president of Transportation Workers Union 252.
“The devil’s in the details,” observed Ryan Lynch, senior planner and policy advisor for the Tristate Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit group that has been critical of the privatization plan, who was at the press conference. “It’s disheartening that politics seems to be the driving force.”
A longtime Long Island Bus driver who asked not to be named for fear of retribution expressed concern about the takeover prospects.
“I don’t know what to do,” he said, who complained that he doesn’t know how his job will be affected under Veolia’s ownership. “If they cut my salary, I’m gone.” He added: “If I could keep my benefits and freeze my salary for another three years, I’ll stay.”
-With Spencer Rumsey