The Metropolitan Transportation Agency (MTA) is shortchanging Long Island Bus riders and both Nassau and the MTA are underfunding the bus system, according to a study released by Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos late Wednesday morning.
"What we have found," Maragos said, is the "MTA is underfunding" the Long Island Bus. The MTA currently provides $21.5 million for the Long Island Bus subsidy, which translates into $.69 per rider compared to $1.60 for passengers of a commuter rail such as the Long Island Rail Road.
"The LI Bus customer is treated unfairly," Maragos said. "They need to treat all commuters equally."
Approximately 31 million riders use Long Island Bus annually. Nassau is also underfunding the Long Island Bus by $8 million, according to Maragos, when compared to subsidies provided by Westchester County.
The Long Island Bus is at the center of a heated debate between Nassau County and the MTA over subsidy payments to help keep the system afloat. The MTA has said that it would implement severe service cutbacks as of Jan. 1, 2011 unless Nassau County substantially increases its contribution amount to the system from $9.1 million to $36.1 million.
"It's going to be devastating to the local community if the service is reduced," Maragos said.
Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano has stated that he is exploring options to privatize Long Island Bus, due to the county's own fiscal crisis. Maragos stated that privatizing the bus system "would cost (Nassau) more" in the long run, between $17 and $19 million annually.
Maragos' office estimates that the contribution would increase to $17.2 million from Nassau County if the bus system was privatized, and "privatization risks losing state and federal subsidies," he said. Currently, no privatized public transportation system exists that does not receive subsidies. State and local subsidies are derived from the New York Sate Mass Transportation Operating Assistance (STOA) and the Nassau County subsidy. The STOA portion of the subsidies made up $8.6 million in 2010, but would fall to $3.3 million in 2011.
The MTA has offered the county the option of gradual step increases in order to raise Nassau's contribution over time, indicating that with an $800 million budget gap, it can no longer afford to pay for the increasing costs at LI Bus.
Maragos encouraged both parties to continue negotiating, hoping that his report would see a "thaw" in the "extreme" positions both sides are taking. It is the comptroller's recommendation that the MTA explore cost-saving measures by reducing Long Island bus operating expenses by 4 percent so that no increase in subsidies from either the MTA or Nassau County would be necessary.
"Four percent should not impact any cutback in service," Maragos said. "The solution is so simple."
Three options were arrived at in the study by the comptroller's office: stay with the current MTA operation; privatize using "peer county models" such as Rochester, Niagara, Westchester and Suffolk; or select one of the bidders in the initiative undertaken by the Mangano administration.
Should there be any increase, it is the comptroller's recommendation that the subsidies be increased proportionally on both sides. In a statement, Maragos did take the position that if the county is "forced to contribute the full subsidy demanded by the MTA," then his office would recommend privatization.