Thousands of Nassau County residents ride Nassau Inter County Express Bus (NICE) to jobs, schools and other destinations in Queens. Many transfer to the New York City Transit subway at Flushing, Jamaica or Far Rockaway stations. Thousands of Queens residents travel via NICE bus to jobs, schools and other destinations in Nassau County. To understand the origins of how we got here, you must go back in time to the early 1970’s.
Prior to NICE, bus service in Nassau was operated under Long Island Bus and Metropolitan Suburban Bus Authority. In 1973, Nassau County purchased equipment, routes and some facilities from numerous private bus operators most of whom were experiencing serious financial difficulties. Their respective fare box income was becoming insufficient to cover current day to day operating expenses. They also lacked the funding to purchase new replacement buses, along with upgrading out of date maintenance and operating bus garages. Nassau County followed up that same year by entering into a lease and operating agreement with the MTA to continue providing local bus service. This resulted in creation of the Metropolitan Suburban Bus Authority. Years later, the Metropolitan Suburban Bus Authority was followed by Long Island Bus and on Jan. 1, 2012, NICE.
It is a four-way dance between fares paid by riders along with funding provided by Nassau County, New York State and the government in financing public bus transportation operated by NICE. They operate a fleet of 308 buses out of the Mitchell Field bus garage.
NICE also operates a fleet of almost 122 Able-Ride paratransit vehicles out of the Stewart Avenue facility. Both facilities were constructed by federal capital grants with local matching funds provided by the county and the New York State Department of Transportation. It was the same funding sources for both construction of the Hempstead Multi-Modal Bus Terminal and Mineola Intermodal Bus Terminal/Commuter Parking Garage. All four of these initial investments combined, cost almost $100 million.
NICE attempts to schedule bus replacements on a 500,000 mile or 12 year cycle. Since 1973, buses operated by NICE under contract to Nassau County are now on the fourth replacement cycle. Most buses operated by NICE are under 12 years old. This was not the case decades earlier when the average age of the fleet was closer to 12 years.
Over time, there have been other capital investments, including compressed natural gas fueling stations, new fare collection equipment, automatic vehicle locator equipment, real time communications systems to notify riders for anticipated arrival of the next bus, shelters and stop signs. Just like a homeowner, what is new today requires constant maintenance, periodic upgrades and eventual replacement. Capital physical assets of any bus system eventually reach the end of their useful life based upon straight line depreciation and/or manufactures warranty. Significant changes in technology may also require replacement of outdated equipment.
The riding public has a difficult time understanding why their route is subject to reduction in the frequency or elimination of all service because it has become a significant financial drain on the transit system. The costs of labor for drivers including salary, fringe and benefits along with fueling, washing, cleaning and maintenance of equipment are major factors in determining the price of service. You also have to add depreciation over time for the life of the bus. The average cost of providing service on any bus route averages $160 dollars or more per hour.
NICE services continue to be one of the best bargains around. Since the 1950s, the average cost of riding a bus in Nassau has gone up at a lower rate than either the consumer price index or inflation. The MetroCard introduced in 1996 affords a free transfer between NICE bus and the NYC Transit bus or subway. Prior to this, riders had to pay two full fares. Purchasing either a weekly or monthly pass further reduces the cost per ride. Many employers offer transit checks, which pay even more of the costs.
In the end, it all comes down to the availability of increased funding for additional transportation service to serve residents. Operating subsidies are required to increase the level of service and reduce the amount of time one waits for a bus on existing routes. Same for adding more off-peak, evening and weekend service. This also holds true for those routes currently under discussion for elimination when there are insufficient revenues to maintain existing service.
—Larry Penner is a transportation historian and advocate who previously worked 31 years for the US Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office.