Will incoming Nassau Inter-County Express CEO Jack Khzouz be able to build upon all his predecessor Michael Setzer accomplished as past chief executive officer from 2012 to this year?
Thousands of Nassau County residents ride Nassau Inter-County Express Bus (NICE) to jobs, schools and other destinations in Queens. Many transfer to the NYC Transit subway at Flushing, Jamaica or Far Rockaway stations. There are growing numbers of Queens and other NYC residents who are reverse commuters traveling via NICE bus to jobs, schools and other destinations in Nassau County. The viablity of NICE bus benefits everyone.
Paying for NICE bus is a four-way dance between fares paid by riders (know as farebox revenues) along with funding provided by Nassau County, New York State and the Federal 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 Nassau County and the State Department of Transportation. Sadly, the Rockville Centre bus facility was removed from transit service on April 9, 2017. 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. In today’s dollars, it would be far higher.
NICE continues attempting to schedule bus replacements on a 500,000 mile or 12-year cycle, whichever comes first, and is based upon federal Department of Transportation guidelines. 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, facility modifications to accommodate CNG buses inside garages, new fare collection equipment, automatic vehicle locator equipment, real time communications systems to notify riders for anticipated arrival of the next bus, shelters, bus stop signs and other support equipment necessary to run the system.
Just like a homeowner, what is new today requires constant maintenance, periodic upgrades and eventual replacement years later. Capital physical assets of any bus system (including revenue vehicles along with bus facility components such as HVAC, bus washers, paint booths, engine shops, bays, pits, lifts, doors, fueling stations, lighting, security systems and many others) 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.
Providing new services may be incoming NICE Bus Chief Administrative Officer Jack Khzouz’s greatest challenge. The success of both MTA Long Island Rail Road $2.6 billion Main Line Third Track, along with $11.8 billion and growing cost for East Side Access to Grand Central Terminal projects are also dependent upon NICE Bus being able to expand feeder service to various LIRR stations. Opening of the new Islanders Hockey team stadium at Belmont Park Arena in 2021 may also require new feeder bus service for fans. How will NICE bus be able to accommodate any future expansion of the existing bus fleet with only one working bus depot when these additional services are required? Even with adding thousands of commuter parking spots at various LIRR stations, there will still be the need to accommodate some of the many new LIRR riders with new additional service provided by NICE Bus. How will NICE Bus be able to accommodate the needs of any new bus services as a result of implementing any recommendations from the ongoing Nassau Hub Transportation Study?
Farebox recovery rate analysis is critical in determining the frequency and continuation of service on a route by route basis. Fifty percent is a good transit industry standard. Some routes are higher and others lower. There are bound to be routes with a handful of riders and a very low farebox recovery rate. In these cases, difficult decisions have to be made by management for preservation of the overall system benefiting the other 98% of daily riders. It is easy over time to add service providing the financial support is available.
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.
It has been 45 years since Nassau County took control of all bus routes from private operators. Over that time period, Nassau County, New York State and the Federal governments have combined invested over $720 million in capital improvements. Operating subsidy dollars easily top over $1 billion.
NICE services continue to be one of the best bargains around. Since the 1950s, the average cost of riding a bus in Nassau County has gone up at a lower rate than either the consumer price index or inflation. The Metro Card 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.
TANSTAFL — There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch or in this case bus ride.
(Larry Penner is a transportation historian, advocate and writer who previously worked for the United States Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office)