STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — A group of Staten Island elected officials is calling on the MTA to officially absorb the SIM23 and SIM24 express bus routes into the New York City Transit system amid potential plans from the city to strip the lines from Academy Bus, which currently operates those routes.
On Wednesday, Councilman Joseph Borelli (R-South Shore) was joined by State Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island), Assemblyman Michael Reilly (R-South Shore) and ATU Local 726 President Danny Cassella to urge the MTA to take over the South Shore routes that currently serve hundreds of Staten Island commuters each day.
The SIM23 and SIM24 express bus routes, which provide service from the South Shore of Staten Island to Midtown Manhattan, are operated by Academy Bus through a contract with the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC).
They are the only two bus routes under the MTA umbrella that are still operated by a third-party contractor.
However, due to recent allegations of fraud brought against Academy Bus by NJ Transit, the NYCEDC plans to strip the express bus service from Academy Bus, potentially resulting in a termination of the routes sometime in late September, according to Borelli.
A representative from NYCEDC said she could not yet comment on the issue due to the ongoing nature of the negotiations.
“There are ongoing negotiations that we cannot discuss further at this time,” an NYCEDC spokesperson said.
Meanwhile, MTA officials said they were already planning a proposal to absorb the SIM23 and SIM24 routes prior to the coronavirus (COVD-19) pandemic, but are now ramping up conversations to take over the routes amid news that the Academy Bus contract would not be renewed.
“Prior to the pandemic, the MTA submitted a proposal to the city to operate the entire Staten Island express network so that all Staten Island commuters would be able to enjoy comparable, reliable services and share in the improvements of the redesigned SIM network,” said NYC Transit Interim President Craig Cipriano.
“Just last week, the MTA was informed that the Academy contracts were not going to be renewed. Since then, we have been working closely with the city to secure a reasonable timeframe to do the proper planning, hiring and procurement of buses. We stand committed to serve the SIM23/24 customers, and will continue our work to ensure a responsible transfer of the commitment to those commuters,” he added.
The discontinuation of the routes would be a crushing blow to hundreds of South Shore commuters who rely on the service to commute to and from Midtown Manhattan from a part of the city that is already painfully underserved by mass transit.
Currently, about 700 Staten Islanders use the SIM23 and SIM24 express bus routes each day, according to Cassella. Prior to the pandemic, that number was closer to 2,100 daily riders.
“This is an issue about equity. This is a large area of Staten Island serviced by the SIM23 and SIM24. They’re some of the only express buses on the South Shore that provide service to Midtown,” Borelli said.
In the short-term, Borelli and Cassella are urging the MTA to implement stop-gap measures to ensure some level of service is maintained for these hundreds of daily South Shore commuters.
“We believe we can operate and cover the existing ridership with existing buses that we have within the MTA fleet,” Borelli said.
Two potential options were floated as possible short-term solutions.
One would use local buses to shuttle commuters from previous SIM23 and SIM24 stops to a nearby express bus stop, where they could transfer to another express bus line that travels to Midtown.
The second would reallocate buses from lesser-used express buses to serve on the SIM23 and SIM24 lines while ridership levels remain low due to the pandemic.
“We’re trying to take away every excuse the MTA has not to take this work over, and I have been in contact with them daily and am willing to work with them however possible,” Cassella said.
Long-term, the group is calling for the MTA to officially absorb the routes into the New York City Transit system with buses that are owned and operated by the MTA.
“The MTA should be operating these buses. We have the best men and women operating these buses of anywhere in the country. The MTA should be providing the service,” Lanza said.
Cassella argued that by bringing the routes under the control of the MTA, commuters would see vast improvements in service and reliability, with riders of Academy Bus having long-documented a host of issues with the express bus lines, including mechanical failures, inadequate upholstery maintenance and poor on-time performance.
Additionally, by transitioning to MTA buses, commuters could make use of recent technological improvements implemented by the agency, including the new OMNY fare payment system, the BusTime mobile site and the MYmta app, which now allows riders to track the number of passengers on a coming bus before it arrives.
CHANGE URGED FOR SOME TIME
Staten Island elected officials, and even leaders of the MTA, have been petitioning the agency to take control of the Academy Bus-run express bus lines for several years.
“Going forward, the MTA must make good on their past commitments for these two routes to be taken over by the MTA,” Borelli said. “This is the last vestige of private express bus service in the city.”
In 2019, former New York City Transit President Andy Byford voiced his support for the agency to absorb the SIM23 and SIM24 express bus lines into the MTA system.
“It makes no sense to me to have this third-party doing this operation, it’s a historical anomaly,” said Byford, who has worked on transit systems in the U.K., Australia and Canada.
“I would like us to take those routes over, because I believe that we can offer a better service, frankly, with my bus operators, my maintainers and our road service personnel, and we can deliver the same improving quality of service to Academy Bus riders as we have on the SIM network,” Byford said.