The M.T.A. dims flashing blue lights, and Select Bus Service stops making so much sense

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Select Bus Service in Manhattan. (Chris Torres via Flickr)
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Bowing to political pressure, in January the M.T.A. agreed to extinguish the flashing blue lights that adorned its faster brand of buses, the ones that make up its "Select Bus Service."

Since then, the supposedly faster bus lines have become less so.

"It’s really affecting the quality of service," an M.T.A. manager who handles Select Bus Service operations told me.

Or, as a Select Bus Service driver described the situation, "It's putting it all back in chaos."

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In 2008, the M.T.A., working with the city's transportation department, began rolling out its new breed of buses.

Unlike the regular, plodding vehicles, Select Bus Service buses would move quickly along dedicated bus lanes, complete with fewer stops, off-board fare payment to allow for swifter boarding, and flashing blue lights, so that riders could distinguish between the faster buses and the slower ones.

In practice, S.B.S. hasn't really lived up to expectations. But it was better than nothing, especially once passengers finally began figuring out the new payment and boarding systems.

But then Staten Island intervened.

Last year, after the M.T.A. and the city launched the first Select Bus Service route in Staten Island, local drivers began to carp.

Not only did the service take space away from personal vehicles, but those flashing blue lights were apparently confusing, too, and, because such lights are reserved for emergency vehicles, illegal.

"The fact of the matter is, it's against the law," State Senator Andrew Lanza, of Staten Island, told the Staten Island Advance. "We think that there is a good public policy reason behind the law."

"It's absolutely clear that the M.T.A. was in violation of the law," said Councilman Vincent Ignizio of Staten Island. "Sen. Lanza and I agreed that's it's clear in state law that the flashing blue lights are to be used for emergency vehicle only."

And so the M.T.A. turned off the lights.

The result, according to those two M.T.A. sources, has been confusion, which has led to longer boarding times, and slower buses.

Which kind of defeats the purpose of the whole thing.

"What’s happening is the people now are confused and they don’t have their tickets ready," said the M.T.A. manager. "They’re holding the buses up while they’re getting their tickets, which increases the dwell time."

Passengers, deprived of one of the Select Bus Service's distinguishing physical characteristics, now have a harder time telling regular buses from select ones and end up "running from bus to bus, in between buses." said the bus driver. "Tourists are completely confused."

And bus drivers discomfited.

Before the lights were turned off, the buses moved along their routes quickly enough so that the driver had time to hit the bathroom at the end of the line. No longer.

"Before, we were right on target," the driver said. "Now we're running late."

Neither Ignizio nor Lanza responded to requests for comment.

In a statement, M.T.A. spokesman Adam Lisberg said, "We’re aware of customer concerns about being unable to distinguish between regular and S.B.S. service, which is why we’re intently studying the best alternative to flashing blue lights."