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NFTA: Planes, Concerts, and a Fare Hike

NFTA Board of COmmissioners meeting, from left to right: Howard Zemsky, Kimberly Minkel, and Henry Sloma

You can go up to the sixth floor for the NFTA Board of Commissioners meeting only after signing in at the lobby desk with a friendly receptionist, and after being checked, not frisked, by a friendly NFTA policeman. Once you’ve arrived at the sixth floor, you exit the elevator and head to the conference room, passing framed photographs of each commissioner. You can’t stop and admire them for too long, however; the officer who escorts you keeps you moving.

And once you’re in the board conference room, you can watch the strange layers of state authority structure, provincial politics, and overriding organizational impulses peel away like pungent onion skin.

The most impacting moment of this week’s NFTA board meeting came about 50 minutes into the session, when acting chairman Henry Sloma asked for votes on a resolution to approve a fare increase, a move that would put the authority’s bottom line back in black. Last month, two commissioners voted against the resolution. This month, the only nays came from Occupy Buffalo protesters Eric Barber, Jamie Nichol Stewart, and Bob Albini. Sloma dropped his pen for a moment and admonished the group for being disruptive. “Look,” he said, “I thought we agreed not to do this.”

Barber mockingly applauded the resolution’s passing and then chided the NFTA brass and Sloma personally for “milking the poor.” Count Occupy Buffalo among those who believe the NFTA’s proposed service cuts were a deliberate tactic to make the second fare hike in three years more palatable. And count Occupy Buffalo among those who think it’s a problem that business people—most of whom haven’t been on a bus since their ski club charter days—are running a public transportation authority that tens of thousands of people depend on every day.

For most of the meeting, it didn’t seem that the board was running a public transportation authority at all: The NFTA operation two airports and ownership of lakeside real estate dominated the discussion. There was a PowerPoint presentation on efforts to advertise the airports to Canadians; a discussion lead by Bill Vanecek, director of aviation, about the fallout of Direct Air’s abrupt folding; and a back and forth about how the $600,000 NFTA floated to Direct Air through four months of unpaid rent would likely never be repaid. Vanecek explained to a skeptical commissioner, downtown developer Mark Croce, that the loss was the cost of doing business.

Three commissioners shared stories about how Direct Air’s cancellations had affected them personally. None mustered the empathy to describe how their vote to approve a fare hike might affect the thousands of riders they serve.

Toward the end of the meeting, a resolution authorizing a concert series to take place on the NFTA’s Outer Harbor lands was stalled. The contract proposition would have netted the NFTA a total of $20,000. Cuomo’s nominee for chairman of the board, Howard Zemsky, said, “If we’re going to do this, we need to find a way to generate a lot more revenue. This is not a public service, this is a for-profit proposition.”

At which point Occupy Buffalo’s Albini muttered, “Sounds like everything else said in this room.”

Zemsky said that he hoped that in a year’s time the board wouldn’t have to discuss concerts. (“We should not be spending half our meeting talking about concerts,” he said.) Outside by the portraits, I asked Zemsky if the board might take a similar approach to discussing aviation, and spend more time talking about ground transportation instead. Zemsky replied that the board had spent much of the morning’s meeting talking about ground transportation issues, and then with slight roll of the eyes, added, “and a lot of time talking about concerts.”

More to come soon on the nascent Citizen Advisory Panel, a newly-forming non-voting committee to express rider’s concerns to the Board, about which not a word was said during the meeting.

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