A day before Veolia Transportation is set to hold the first in a series of public hearings on cuts to its seven-week-old Nassau Inter-County Express bus service, a small group of transit advocates calling themselves the Long Island Bus Riders’ Union huddled at a bus stop outside the bus system’s Garden City headquarters to express their “grave concerns” about the proposal.
The proposed changes–which the company calls a “realignment”–surfaced last week around the same time County Executive Ed Mangano announced his picks for the Transit Advisory Committee, which oversees fare and service changes. But so far the county hasn’t come through on its promise to create a customer advisory committee, which was supposed to hold its first meeting last month.
“We ride the buses, we know what’s going on,” said Charlene Obernauer, executive director of Long Island Jobs With Justice, who organized the press conference at the bus stop Tuesday. “We want the service to be better!”
Among the issues the riders’ advocacy group raised was concern that service for the blind and disabled might end up on the chopping block and the lack of multi-lingual public announcements.
“Prioritizing Nassau County bus riders will require increased subsidies from Nassau County,” said Obernauer. “Otherwise a future of drastic service cuts and fare increases will be inevitable.”
Others say service has improved since Veolia rebranded the defunct Long Island Bus with the NICE name.
“The buses are cleaner,” agreed Chris Gavin, executive vice president of the Transit Workers Union Local 252. But cleanliness cannot compare to frequency and affordability, according to the leaders of the Long Island Bus Riders’ Union.
The advocates noted the absence of “a single bus rider on the [transit advisory] committee,” Obernauer said, and the presence of a taxi company executive, Lawrence W. Blessinger Jr., vice president of All Island Transportation.
Veolia said it was looking forward to this week’s public meetings.
“In the past 49 days we have made many significant improvement in Nassau County’s bus system,” a Veolia spokeswoman told the Press. “We welcome all constructive suggestions that will help NICE continue this improvement, which is why we have and will continue to hold multiple different types of community meetings, surveys, and listening sessions. We want to build ridership on the NICE system by making changes that address the real needs of the customers.”
Veolia officially took over the county’s Long Island Bus service from the MTA on Jan. 1. But Veolia is already projecting a $7.3 million shortfall, and wants to reduce service along some bus lines in April to make up the difference.
Last year, the county had sought a private operator for its buses after the MTA demanded the county increase its $9 million subsidy to match the public subsidies of nearby counties. By signing with Veolia, Nassau County reduced its bus subsidy to roughly $2.5 million.
In a bipartisan show of support, the county legislature voted unanimously to approve the Republican county executive’s contract with Veolia. But under the terms of the contract, the legislature would hold public hearings if Veolia wanted to reduce service by more than 25 percent or raise fares.
Veolia says it is retaining all the present bus routes, just cutting back, sometimes significantly, in the frequency of buses, and offering some express service to Queens. Because Veolia’s proposed reductions fall under the threshold, it is holding the non-binding public presentations to keep the ridership informed about what’s coming.
The first NICE bus presentation is from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., on Feb. 22, at the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center, 101 James Doolittle Blvd., Uniondale. The second one is from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., on Feb. 23, at the Great Neck Library, 159 Bayview Ave., Great Neck.