NY: NICE Bus on Different Path than MTA

Feb. 27--Recent changes in Nassau's bus system go beyond service cuts unveiled last week and include investments geared toward efficiency, punctuality and cleanliness, NICE Bus officials said.

Officials with Veolia Transportation, the private operator that began running the bus system Jan. 1, said some of the changes already have saved the county millions of dollars and spared passengers time and aggravation on their commutes.

NICE Bus chief executive Michael Setzer said much of Veolia's job is making up for what he called years of neglect by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operated the bus system for 37 years.

"There are a lot of bad habits here that have been going on for years and years," he said. "It's still got a way to go and I'm far from being satisfied."

County Executive Edward Mangano in June 2011 chose Veolia to take over the bus system. The MTA had voted to terminate its pact with the county amid a funding dispute.

Last week, NICE Bus revealed plans to cut service on 30 routes to help fill a $7.3-million budget gap. The details met with mixed reviews from riders.

Joseph Smith, president of MTA Long Island Bus from 2007 to 2010, disputed assertions that the MTA failed to make the system a priority. He said the agency was constantly wrestling with the county for funding to make improvements, but the county "did not want to go for one extra penny for anything."

Mangano has said the MTA was wasteful and inefficient in operating the system.

MTA board member Mitchell Pally, of Stony Brook, defended the MTA's management of Long Island Bus. He said it was unfair of Veolia to compare its current efforts against those of the MTA when that agency knew it was losing the system.

"We were not going to make maintenance improvements to a system we were no longer going to have," Pally said. "In the short term you can do things that you can't do in the long term. . . . Let's see where they are in 2014."

Setzer said that even while having to cut costs he believes Veolia has been able to improve service. As an example, he said, Veolia completed every bus run in its schedule in January. So far in February, Veolia missed operating one bus, officials said.

The MTA, in its final months running the system, was unable to complete all runs because of staffing problems and buses being pulled for inspection ahead of Veolia's takeover.

Setzer acknowledged that on-time performance remains a big challenge, citing a combination of lax supervisory practices, outdated schedules and failing technology as contributing factors.

As an example, he said about half of the GPS systems installed on the fleet don't work, making it difficult to track vehicles. Veolia aims to eventually replace the systems, but he said that would cost more than $8 million.

Similarly, about half the "mobile data terminals" used to track Able-Ride buses don't work, Setzer said, causing inefficient scheduling of pickups and drop-offs of disabled riders. At its own expense, Veolia has ordered nearly 100 new electronic tablet devices to replace the terminals, he said.

To try to improve on-time performance, Veolia is changing published arrival and departure times on some routes to better reflect how long it takes to get from point A to point B during varying traffic conditions.

Although Setzer said improvements have been plentiful, several bus riders say they haven't noticed much difference since Veolia took control on New Year's Day. Some even said the changes they have noticed haven't been for the better.

"I take it every day and I think that it's worse," said John Koskotas, 27, of Brooklyn, who commutes to Mineola for his media job. "I think the buses are fewer and far between."

Copyright 2012 - Newsday, Melville, N.Y.