Despite numerous bumps in the road—and unseen curves up ahead such as the looming possibility of a bus strike—the Nassau County Legislature unanimously approved a new contract in a special session Monday that turns over the operation of Long Island Bus to Veolia Transportation, a private company based in Illinois.
Come Jan. 1, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which has run the bus system for almost 40 years, will be replaced by a division of a French-owned consortium, and the buses will be renamed—and repainted—the Nassau Inter-County Express, aka NICE. The county had been paying the MTA roughly $9.1 million annually, but under the new contract it will pay Veolia about $2.5 million.
After the legislature voted and adjourned, County Executive Ed Mangano, Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt (R-Massapequa), and Minority Leader-elect Kevan Abrahams (D-Hempstead) held a rare joint news conference to explain how they’d come together on the bus deal.
Mangano hailed “today’s unanimous vote on a very controversial topic,” adding that he hoped it would mark the “first day of many days to come when we stand together, united as a county…to do the right thing for the people of Nassau County.”
Schmitt said he “wouldn’t sing Kum-ba-yah” but he was “delighted” that the contract passed “with bipartisan cooperation” that led to “the unanimous passage” of the contract. He said he was glad the MTA would no longer be running the county’s bus service.
“I’ve always been a firm believer that private industry can do anything better than government can,” he said. “So I look forward to better service for the ridership of the buses as well as significant savings for the taxpayers of this county.”
Abrahams noted that the legislature has “been in a state of turmoil” for the last couple of years and working “across the aisle” was a “true accomplishment.” Once his Democratic caucus was able to amend the contract in several key areas, he said it was important “for us to show some bipartisanship. We’ve got to move this process forward. At the end of the day no one can argue that this contract isn’t better.”
The contract maintains current fares through 2012, continues Able-Ride as is for at least three years, requires any changes to fares or routes be subject to two public hearings, and clarifies the advisory role of the five-member transportation oversight committee, who will be appointed by the county executive, the presiding officer and the minority leader.
Explaining his rationale for seeking a “public-private partnership” with Veolia, Mangano said the MTA was demanding that Nassau pay $26 million more or see its bus routes cut by half. Last year the MTA began asking the county to match the public bus subsidies of Westchester and Suffolk, $30 million and $26 million respectively, and offered to spread the increment over three years, but the county balked and negotiations broke down. The MTA said it would scale the routes back to what the county was actually paying for its $9 million but the county said no, and so the MTA’s contract was set to expire Dec. 31.
In a statement after the vote, Mangano said the new-found bi-partisan cooperation would save the taxpayers $32.4 million annually and represented “a new, smarter and more efficient way of providing services in Nassau County.”
Complicating the county’s bus deal was the announcement last week that Veolia’s French parent company, Veolia Environmental, planned to “exit the transport sector as part of a sweeping restructuring plan” to sell assets and reduce debt. Before the legislature voted on the contract, representatives of Veolia Transportation, the North American subsidiary, assured the county that the pending change would have no impact on its local bus operation.
Adding assurances were County Attorney John Ciampoli and deputy county executive Rob Walker, who said that the county has protections in its new contract and can opt out “in 90 days” if it chooses to do so. After the Monday evening vote, Mangano said Veolia has “a great incentive” to live up to its agreement and that this “is the right company to do the right job in Nassau.”
A spokesman for the Transit Workers Union, which has been without a contract with the MTA for three years but expects to get one approved next week, said the Veolia contract has “holes big enough to drive a bus through.” Negotiations for a new contract with Veolia have gone slowly, union officials say, and they were upset that Veolia wouldn’t at least honor the MTA contract until the new one could be finalized and ratified.
Before the legislature voted, Pat Bowden, president of the TWU Local 252, complained that the county was “putting our backs against a wall.” She said her members were expected to hammer out an agreement “in three weeks” that took the Mangano administration at least “eight months.”
She reminded the county that come New Year’s Day, the bus workers will no longer be subject to the state’s Taylor Law, which prohibits public employees from striking. Had she said made that observation at the public hearing on Dec. 5, the crowded chamber would probably have erupted, but at the special session called by the presiding officer, only a dozen or so activists, if that many, were on hand to support the union and the current bus operator.
Asked how the negotiations were going, Mike Setzer, Veolia’s incoming chief executive of the new bus service, said he was optimistic that both sides would work out a deal, and he discounted what he called the theatrics of the union’s comments. Compared to other negotiations he’s been in, this one with the TWU isn’t so bad, he said. In a statement after the vote, Setzer said, “Veolia has been actively preparing for the transition since last June and is 100 percent committed to doing a great job for Nassau County.”
Unanimity did not sit well with transportation advocate Charlene Obernauer, executive director of Long Island Jobs with Justice, who told the legislators, the Democratic minority in particular, that she wished they had withheld their consent. But she was resigned to their decision.
“We’re very, very concerned” about this contract, she said, adding that her group plans to set up its own “advisory committee” and organize a “riders’ union.” Referring to the pending Jan. 1 deadline, she said, “I know you’re between a rock and a hard place.”
But, for now, the entire legislature is all on board the new contract with Veolia. How long that lasts remains to be seen.