Nassau County strikes down proposed cuts to NICE bus routes

In the latest round of the back-and-forth budget dispute between Nassau County and Nassau Inter County Express (NICE) bus, the proposed service cuts slated to take effect early next year failed to become official, as the NICE Bus Transit Committee did not produce a majority vote during two public hearings held on December 8th at the Theodore Roosevelt Executive and Legislative Building in Mineola. The board voted to a 3-3 tie, which means that the proposed cuts to nine different bus routes and shuttle services, some of which had been restored in June after having been cut the previous January, will not come to pass.

The routes included the Elmont Flexi service, the Rockville, Freeport, Hicksville and Mercy shuttles, as well as the N80/81, the N48 and the midday shuttle from Nassau Community College. The reductions in service, officially proposed by NICE Bus CEO Michael Setzer in his presentation to the board during the hearing, were slated to take effect in January 2017. Setzer told the board that cuts to service are necessary to shore up a $12 million deficit in NICE’s operating budget.

Elmont resident George Raskin, 61, longtime user of the NICE bus system and member of the Long Island Bus Riders’ Union for the past year, took a 2 ½ hour bus trip just for the chance to air his grievances, along with other riders in a tense, nearly-packed legislative chamber. Raskin hoped that Nassau County could find an alternate way of balancing their budget without resorting to service rollbacks.

“I know there’s a shortage of money, but this is not the way to go,” he said.

If the January cuts had been approved, Raskin’s normally 90-minute commute from his home in Elmont to the ShopRite in Plainview where he works would become exponentially more difficult.

“I’d have to take other buses, I’d have to wait longer wait times, walk longer walks,” he explained. “I’d have to get around without the services that are really dearly needed.”

Currently, NICE bus operates on a $123 million budget, yet Setzer has gone on record noting that due to rising labor costs, its budget must be increased to $135 million in 2017 for service to continue uninterrupted. Setzer warned in a separate interview of deeper cuts to the bus service later in the year that could come to pass now that the January reductions have failed, something that his presentation was intended to stave off. He was quoted as saying that “kicking the can down the road” as the committee did could very well lead to more service cancellations in the coming months. Unless the $12 million deficit is resolved by April, the N19, N36, the N45, the N78/79 and the N88 routes would be cut, along with significant rollbacks in rush hour and weekend services for routes that remain. Although Setzer maintained that he will continue working with state and local officials to find a less drastic solution to the problem without taxing more routes, he put the responsibility of reducing the deficit on Nassau County leadership, stating that “public officials have to step up and provide adequate funding.”

Aaron Watkins-Lopez, an organizer for the Long Island Bus Riders’ Union, has been fighting service cuts to NICE bus on behalf of its users for close to a year, and although the cuts have been scuttled for now, the tone within his organization was less jubilant and more measured.

“After last year, having to spend six months of the year in the freezing cold, I think everyone’s really relieved that we have until April to fix this,” he said.

Watkins-Lopez, also a member of the Transit Commission that struck down Setzer’s proposal, is aware of the challenges that lie ahead of Nassau’s bus riders.

“I think that we delayed something terrible, but there’s more work to be done,” he said. “There’s always more work to be done.”