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NFTA Update

Sean Ryan: A nickel fare increase means another $1 million annually, but the NFTA bus drop-boxes only take quarters.

A politician, a developer, and a spokesman walk onto a bus...

It’s not really a joke. At least it shouldn’t be. But the state of the NFTA at times reveals a byzantine web of conflicting interests, inexperience, strange math, and outdated coin machines on buses. It’s hard not to laugh darkly at the absurdity the system provides the public, in the “If you don’t laugh, it’ll just drive you crazy” kind of way.

To recap the long, strange stops the less-than-magic bus has taken in recent months:

• Faced with a $14.7 million dollar shortfall, the NFTA found a way to trim $7 million in-house, and presented a proposal to the public to enact a painful service reduction in order to avoid any fare increase.

• Assemblyman Sean Ryan’s requested that the New York Authorities Budget Office review the NFTA’s finances, and the ABO agreed to conduct a review.

• The service reduction plan meets vociferous resistance in a series of public hearings in late January, as some of the thousands of folks who depend on the NFTA to sustain themselves pleaded for the NFTA not to cut their bus service.

• Governor Cuomo’s proposed budget included a restoration of $2.9 million in State Transportation Operating Assistance funds, leaving the NFTA with a revised deficit of roughly $4.8 million.

• In February Board of Commissioners approved a plan to increase the fare by a quarter to $2, with only two commissioners voting against it. They also agreed to add a “Citizen Advisory Panel” to bring the voices of the system’s ridership to the board.

• Early this month, Governor Cuomo nominated businessman/developer/philanthropist Howard Zemsky to become the new Chairman.

Also in February, the acting chairman of the board, Henry Sloma, wrote a letter to the Niagara County Legislature asking for a $1 million annual pledge, stating “it would appear based on the service levels that Niagara County is equitably enriched by service in excess of $1 million over and above the contribution of mortgage recording tax.” Erie County currently contributes one eighth of one percent of its sales tax revenue to the NFTA in addition to its own mortgage recording tax proceeds. In Niagara County, no such luck. The Niagara County Legislature has commenced its process of hemming and hawing.

When asked in February whether the lack of a sitting chairman negatively affected the NFTA, spokesperson C. Douglas Hartmayer responded, “Not at all. As a 14-year member of the board, acting chairman Sloma has led the board with dedication and passion on behalf of the Buffalo Niagara region.” That’s right, Say-it-ain’t-Sloma has been in a leadership position in the NFTA for 14 years, yet this is the first time, seemingly, that he has approached his home county for an operating assistance commensurate to what Erie County provides.

“He’s been acting chair for three years and this inequity has been going on now for more than a decade,” Assemblyman Sean Ryan said by phone. “I appreciate Acting Chair Sloma writing a letter, there’s still no resolution from the NFTA board asking for that. They could and they should come out stronger for that. In return, Niagara County should get a statutory board seat. Erie County got two board seats in return for their contribution.”

The bios of the current commissioners offers a strange brew of political allegiances and conflicts of interest, so it may come as little surprise that Sloma, as a powerful Republican figure in Niagara County, found it unfit to write such a letter at an earlier time. Adam Perry is a Byron Brown apparatchik, or a civic-minded and effective attorney, depending on who you’re asking. Kevin Helfer runs Buffalo Civic Auto Ramp (BCAR), a quasi-governmental agency that runs downtown’s public parking ramps, keeping monthly parking rates artificially low and standardized. Developer and restauranteur Mark Croce owns several surface lots in the entertainment district.

Croce was one of the two commissioners (Michael Hughes being the other) who voted against the fare cuts last month. Croce explained his vote: “We had a fare increase not too long ago [January 2009], and we have a $200 million dollar budget, yet every time we have a deficit we rely on the backs of the people, losing focus on our core mission.” Reached by phone, Croce bristled at the notion that his involvement in the parking business might present a conflict of interest. “Conflict of interest?” he said. “I’m the only one who understands the situation!”

Croce pointed out that the price of the new monthly bus pass ($75) would be nearly identical to or even more than monthly parking ramp rates, and that he desires public transportation to be a more viable and cheaper option for consumers. The lack of free-market pricing on parking downtown, he said, is an impediment for growth. “You can’t just get a monthly, you have to go on a wait-list,: he said. “Downtown has lost out on new businesses because these a new business can’t find parking for their employees.”

It’s bad enough for BCAR to be in direct competition with the NFTA, Croce said, but it’s downright odious for the director of BCAR, Kevin Helfer, to have a seat on the NFTA board. (Attempts to reach Helfer were unsuccessful as his listed extension at the BCAR office routed to someone else’s voicemail, and the message was not returned.)

Croce was also quick to point out other revenue streams the NFTA should explore, saying he’s asked to board to look into the city’s $4-5 million yearly proceeds in the Parking Enterprise Fund, while also complaining about the disproportionate level of state funding for New York City’s MTA, and the lack of concessions from the Amalgamated Transit Union, which serves many of the NFTA’s employees.

The bus is crowded with ideas about how the NFTA can save money or find new revenue streams. The NFTA has explored low cost or free power from the Power Authority in Niagara Falls; it has initiated the sale of its Outer Harbor real estate; policemen have been laid off; and overtime has been severely limited.

Ryan proposed that the NFTA find a way to scale back their 25-cent fare hike to 10 or 15 cents. “Every nickel brings in about a $1 million [annually],” Ryan said. “And they told me that because they haven’t updated their coin drop-boxes on the buses, they can only accept quarters. It’s very frustrating because it seems that the only answer is a quarter increase.”

These are the same boxes that are unable to give change and unable to accept credit or debit card payments; and this is the same public transportation agency with a $200 million dollar budget and a large “support service” staff that still has been unable to produce any smartphone “app” that could offer schedules, trip itineraries, and even payment options. The NFTA seems stuck in 1988 in more ways than one.

Several months ago, regionalism activist Kevin Gaughan submitted a humanizing article to the Buffalo News about the riders and drivers of the bus system itself. He included some interesting figures, namely that the NFTA employs 115 people as “support service managers,” whose salaries and benefits total “$11.4 million.” When asked directly about this figure, the NFTA’s Hartmayer responded, “I have no idea where Gaughan came up with his information. I can tell you that the NFTA has 43 manager positions for its 1,600 workforce with a total budget of $3.8 million.”

Reached by phone, Gaughan defended his figures. “All I did was [review their budget] and count heads, and I did so rather conservatively; any employee that had a tile including ‘senior,’ I included in my definition of managers. I’d be pleased and honored to sit down with the NFTA, preferably an officer and not a spokesperson.

“All New York State public authorities should do what all private companies have been forced to do: downsize, adapt, and innovate,” Gaughan continued. “So far, the NFTA’s abject refusal to do so has hurt itself. They should downsize their administrative offices and what they define as ‘support services.’ For some 20 years, we’ve asked them to divest their real estate holdings, and it hasn’t happened. Accountability in agencies like the NFTA slide back and forth between the board and its officers and, as a result, I think it’s reasonable to assert that this governance model is failing us. I’m thrilled to see that the board will include someone who actually rides the bus [the Citizen Advisory Panel], though it’s shameful that this person will not have a vote.”

The Authorities Budget Office review and analysis on the chronic budgetary woes of the NFTA may not be completed until the summer, though Gaughan doesn’t proffer much enthusiasm for its ultimate efficacy. “With all due respect, the ABO is a waste of time,” he said. “The idea of one New York State government agency assessing another is like asking one fox in the chicken coop to assess another fox. There should be an independent review by a consulting firm such as McKinsey & Company—for the third poorest city in the nation, I’m sure McKinsey would consider lending a hand pro bono.”

If there’s any hope for the situation to become untangled it may lie in three emerging areas: the Citizen Advisory Panel, executive director Kimberly Minkel, and the incoming chairman, Howard Zemsky. The Citizen Advisory Pane, while not empowered to vote, would finally endow the board with the voice of its ridership. Hartmayer clarified to the role of the CAP through an email: “As with any advisory panel that I am aware of, it will not be a part of the actual governing Board, but rather act in and advisory capacity to help Metro become more responsive and better meet the needs of its customers. It will function in a capacity similar to our current Advisory Committee on the Disabled.”

There also seems to exist a good deal of confidence in Minkel’s ability to evolve into an effective leader of the NFTA, and widespread respect and admiration for Zemsky. “He’s very methodical,” Ryan said. “He’ll listen to a lot of voices, synthesize that, and say, ‘Here’s a good policy initiative.’ That’s a rare thing among leaders. Howard does more listening than talking.”

If that’s truly the case, he should get plenty of chances to listen. There are two public hearings to discuss the fare increase scheduled next week: Wednesday, March 21 at 6pm in Niagara Falls City Hall, and Thursday, March 22 at 6 pm at the Central Library in Buffalo. Hopefully, a healthy debate can drown out the dark snickering.

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