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Fate of Long Island Bus Still Unknown

County Comptroller: Both MTA and Nassau Should Pay More

County Executive Edward P. Mangano and the MTA have been grappling for months over who should pay for bus service in Nassau. This summer, the MTA moved to take its sizable subsidy that has been keeping service running out of its budget for next year. The county recently passed a budget that has not raised its contribution to cover this expense. Therefore, as the end of the year fast approaches, the clock is ticking for the 102,000 daily riders who wait for someone to step in with a solution to save Long Island Bus.

Nassau County owns the bus system and the MTA has been employed as a contractor to operate and maintain the system since 1973 when 10 private lines were consolidated. The county had provided funding for all LI Bus expenses that were not covered either by the fares or subsidies from the state. In 2000, the MTA was forced to begin shouldering a much larger portion of costs and now, ten years later, is calling for the county to resume full responsibility for its transportation system, to the tune of somewhere around $30 million. County Executive Mangano has refused.  

Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos recently released information on a study his office has executed, exploring possible options for solving this issue and saving bus service.  

Maragos argued at a press conference that this is not the time to cut funding on either end, stating: “Given the current economic situation of both the MTA and Nassau County the most equitable compromise would appear to be for both to proportionately increase their subsidies and for the MTA to continue operating the LIBS.”

He continued, “Most LI Bus system riders cannot afford to lose this trusted form of transportation. The MTA and the county must find a resolution to this debate without interrupting service to a very important part of Nassau’s economic engine. Our report recommends that the MTA and the county can save LI Bus by contributing proportionately towards its operation.”  

Maragos argues that if the MTA could cut 4 percent of the LI Bus operating budget, no increase in subsidies would be required by either party. However, this does not address the existing subsidy that neither party wants to cover.

The comptroller went on to say that if negotiations with the MTA fail, and the county is stuck with what he said would amount to a quadrupled bill, then he recommends privatizing the system. This will be expensive, he said and leaves only a few options.  

Mass transit advocates have fought the privatization idea, claiming that private systems cost riders more and offer less service. The Maragos report does show that the cost is high. The study compared LIBS to bus systems in Rochester, Niagara, Westchester and Suffolk Counties and found that the privatized systems in other counties can cost about the same or more than the MTA run LIBS and can require substantially more in local contributions.

“Our study shows that private operators require Suffolk and Westchester Counties to pay $27.3 million and $13.8 million respectively. Using the Westchester model, which approximates the LIBS in ridership, we estimate that Nassau County would have to increase its subsidy from $9.1 million to $17.2 million,” the comptroller has stated. This model only makes sense, he determined, if the MTA option will cost the county more than $17.3 million annually.

As far as finding a private operator on the open market, the comptroller said this was not a promising route.

“These bidders may require a significant fare increase of up to 20 percent,” he said of bidders responding to the county’s RFP. “Furthermore, without a county matching subsidy, New York State subsidies to the LIBS would be lost, putting further strain on a private operator and risk of an even higher subsidy or fares. For these reasons, we do not consider the current private bidders as viable long-term solutions.”

The advocacy group the Tri-State Transportation Campaign has been a vocal contributor of ideas during this debate. Ryan Lynch, senior planner at TSTC, told Anton Community Newspapers that one of the biggest developments coming out of the Maragos study related to privatization.

“One way this shifts the negotiations between the county and the MTA,” Lynch said, “is that it makes it clear that privatization is not an option. The only option is negotiating in a way that makes sure the bus riders, businesses and the environment in Nassau don’t suffer because of a decimation of the bus system.”

In response to the county report, MTA spokesperson Aaron Donovan told Anton Community Newspapers that Nassau is the only suburban county to receive a bus subsidy from the MTA. He reiterated the MTA’s position: “As stated under the initial 1973 agreement, the county is to [provide funding] for the full amount of bus service, that is, any amount not provided by New York State. They had been providing a full subsidy through 1999 and we’re asking the county to do that again.”

Donovan said that the MTA will consider the county gradually stepping up its coverage over time, if it led to an eventual full county subsidy. He said, “Whatever it costs to run the bus service would be the number in that case. We are contributing $27 million as a contractor who works for county – we have told the county we’d entertain an agreement to step up to that number in time.”

The MTA spokesperson said that as of right now there is no definite date when the buses would stop running, saying, “There is no hard and firm date put forward right now – we are assuming in 2011 the county will assume its full subsidy.”

The MTA would be required to give 60 days notice if they were ending bus service, per the agreement from the 1970s. Donovan said they have not taken that step yet.