For nearly 40 years, the MTA has seemingly begrudgingly operated the Nassau County bus system. In a compromise borne out of transportation and fiscal necessity, the MTA agreed to take over the county’s bus system in 1973 when the various private operators were on the verge of bankruptcy. In exchange for $14 million from the county and feds along with a promise from Nassau County to cover the new bus routes’ operating deficits, the Metropolitan Suburban Bus Authority would assume control of the buses. It hasn’t been an easy marriage.
Over the years, Nassau County and the MTA have disagreed over, well, everything. At various times, the MTA has overbilled Nassau County for services while Nassau County has scaled back its contributions to the Long Island Bus budget. As recently as 2000, state officials called for a complete takeover of the Nassau County bus system by the MTA in order for the county to avoid $20 million in operating contributions to its own bus system, and in 2003, the MTA and Nassau County came to a last-minute agreement to avoid bus cuts.
Yet again, a conflict between Nassau County and the MTA is boiling over, and officials on both sides of the table are digging in for a great game of chicken. The problem is simple: The Long Island bus routes cost $133.1 million to run, and Nassau County contributes just $9 million of that total. The state picks up nearly $45 million, and the MTA must foot the bill for the difference. It is, said Newsday, a “sweetheart subsidy” for an agency that can ill afford to pay.
So, as they do every few years, the MTA is threatening to cut Long Island Bus service until Nassau County ponies up, and no one likes that. As I reported a few weeks ago, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano issued a call for Jay Walder’s resignation, and Nassau County has begun to accept bids for a privatized bus system. Apparently, the lessons of the 1960s are lost upon the current generations of leaders.
This drama has continued to advance over the last few weeks. As the Tri-State Transportation Campaign reported on Friday, the new Nassau County budget is well over $2 billion, and it contains no more than the same $9.1 million for the bus system. The MTA, much to the transit organization’s chagrin, refuses to budge. TSTC offered up a common-sense solution:
A logical compromise would be for Nassau County to increase its contribution over time in return for continued MTA support. Instead, the county has offered red herrings like calling for a privatized bus system, suing the MTA over the payroll tax, and the call for Walder’s head. The Newsday editorial board called this a “cheap shot” and an attempt to “distract attention from the challenges of coming up with a 2011 budget,” which would ostensibly be where the County would propose how it would fund LI Bus with or without the MTA’s subsidy.
With a structural deficit of $286 million, Nassau County has claimed poverty, perhaps rightfully so. But if Suffolk and Westchester Counties can find a way to fund buses in these tough economic times, so can Nassau. It’s not as if Nassau County isn’t willing to spend money on transportation. Even with its deficit, the County recently decided to appropriate $3 million to widen and repair Jackson Avenue in Syosset.
If this sounds like a familiar drama, that’s because it’s nearly identical to the Student MetroCard debate. There, the state and city promised to fund student transit on an equal footing with the MTA and never upheld their ends of the bargain. Today, we’re back at an equilibrium point where the state and city still contribute far less than they should. I’d imagine a similar compromise will be reached in Nassau County when the county officials find a few more million for the MTA.
This whole drama though is just a microcosm for the way the state treats transit. No one wants to fund the various agencies tasked with running our subways and buses, and politicians would rather snipe than make tough funding choices. While some groups have proposed making MTA Board spots open to public election as a way to increase public accountability, the politicians who control the purse strings would be no more or less responsive to public needs than they are today, and as this transit drama plays out on Long Island, a county may lose its bus service.