By Vision Long Island
Long Island Bus has dominated transportation discussions for the last several months, not only on Long Island but in the entire tri-state region. Essentially, one of the nation’s largest suburban bus systems is about to make the switch from a publically-run system to a privately-run one. The process has been a debacle, with new developments unfolding every week for the last several months.
Several months ago, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority proposed severe service cuts as a reaction to an ongoing funding dispute. At the same time, the public felt that the imposition of the MTA payroll tax should at least hold the line on bus service provision through these difficult times. County residents, business owners and lawmakers were furious. Unfortunately, MTA and Nassau County leadership chose a hardball approach to bargaining that left bus riders in the cold.
Now the central player is Nassau County – who owns the buses. The process of ending ties with the MTA and awarding the private bid to Veolia Transportation – a French-owned company with American offices – has been defined by a lack of transparency. The County has yet to hold a public hearing, and the system’s 100,000 daily riders are terrified that their routes will be cut and fares increased. Veolia quietly signed a contract in October, but the details of that contract were not released to the public or the County Legislature—who must review and approve the contract before it is enacted—until two days after Election Day. The latest news is that the contract has passed through the Rules Committee into the full Legislature, who will finally hold a public hearing on December 5th and vote on the contract shortly thereafter.
Meanwhile, the MTA has issued 981 layoff notices, and the County passed a 2012 budget with only a $2.5 million contribution for LI Bus – representing a 73% decrease from 2011. Our neighboring suburban counties, which have slightly smaller bus systems than Nassau County, pay between $25 million and $35 million a year to run their public-private partnerships. If Veolia does not take a substantial loss, there will most certainly be service cuts, fare increases and/or layoffs.
There seems to be little hope, but Nassau bus riders and supporters are fighting back and making an impact. Community and business groups have come together to wage a campaign to save Long Island Bus. Vision Long Island is a partner in a long list, which includes Tri-State Transportation Campaign, LI Jobs With Justice, NYPIRG, NY Communities for Change, LI Federation of Labor, Transport Workers Union Local 252, local religious leaders, Chambers of Commerce, and many others. Thousands of bus riders, drivers, students, disabled AbleRide users (who are also at risk of losing service) and more have been mobilized to let the County know how important the buses are to their daily lives.
As a coalition we have held press events, ranging from a funeral for LI Bus to a recent “trick-or-treat” themed event with petitions and letters that we delivered to the County Executive. We have attended countless County Legislature hearings, and even caused some disruptions there. Recently the Presiding Officer walked out of a budget hearing due to riders and drivers yelling at the Legislature to hold a public hearing and preserve the bus system. We have written letters, given testimony, and held meetings with elected officials, as well as the MTA back when they were still involved. In August we held a “People’s Hearing” in absence of a County-run public hearing, where over 200 riders and supporters showed up to voice their concerns along with a bipartisan handful of dedicated County Legislators.
A tremendous amount of local press coverage has been garnered, and earlier this month we were glad to see the media’s decision to make LI Bus an election issue, as all 19 County Legislator seats were up for grabs.
Time is running out to come to a solution. The MTA’s contract expires on December 31st, 2011. Ties with the MTA are severed and there is no alternative private company lined up if the County does not like the Veolia contract. The MTA has made it clear it is willing to continue running the system, but there’s no indication the County will do anything but rush into a contract with Veolia. We can only keep pushing in hopes that the bus system remains reliable, safe and transparent.
We ask that you contact the Nassau County Legislators, and ask that they not adopt a contract that does not adhere to a “Bus Riders’ Bill of Rights.” This includes at least a 5-year freeze on any service cuts and fare increases, free transfers with other MTA transit service as exists today, safe and efficient service, equipment that is in a state of good repair, and transparent and responsive administration of service, which includes giving riders and taxpayers a way to provide input into how county transit is run.