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Next story: Odds and Ends

The Bus Stops Here

Assemblyman Sean Ryan: Welcomes new funding for NFTA, but not without an audit to determine the causes of the authority's persistent fincancial crises.

In an open letter addressed to the “Metro Customer” found on its website, NFTA Executive Director Kimberley Minkel states that the “Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority and its Metro Bus and Rail system is [sic] at a crossroads.” The letter goes on to say that “increasing expenses, coupled with reduced state and county operating assistance, in addition to a drop in revenue is not a recipe for success.”

Until this week the NFTA projected a $14.7 million deficit. And the NFTA’s cookbook at this point appears limited to two rather distasteful options from the austerity menu: raise fares or cut service.

The proposed service cuts are staggering in scope: Dozens of lines will be eliminated entirely, including heavily used buses like the 16-South Park, the 8-Main, and the 11-Colvin, while weekend service on many other lines will be reduced or cut outright. Altogether, the NFTA is looking to eliminate 22 percent of bus system miles, reduce total hours of service by 26 percent, and the number of “rides” (trips) by 18 percent (or 3.7 million less than the 30 million previously projected). Metro train service in Buffalo would only be curtailed by eliminating the eight 11pm train runs on Sunday.

In his budget address on Tuesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed an additional $7 million in state funding to the NFTA, which may help to prevent some of the proposed cuts. In a statement, Assemblyman Sean Ryan welcomed the additional funding, while noting that “this is only a temporary measure and will not solve the NFTA’s funding problems in the long term.”

Ryan convened a public hearing last Thursday on the matter at the Crane Library, on the 20 Elmwood line. Ryan opened the forum by summarizing the current crisis facing the NFTA and the importance of public transport to the region’s economy. Ryan said that he believed that the core mission of the NFTA should be the buses and trains, and the authority’s involvement in real estate and airports—two of them—are distractions from the system’s purpose. Ryan has asked the state’s Authorities Budget Office to audit the NFTA and investigate the cause of its chronic budget ills.

Though the Crane Library is located in a relatively affluent neighborhood where most commuters own cars, the attendees were a diverse crowd of about a hundred people, who crowded into the library’s upstairs meeting room to hear from roughly 30 people who volunteered to speak.

Gladys Morrero from the Erie County Department of Social Services spoke about how service cuts will create deficits in other publicly funded programs, such as the Transition-to-Work program, which refers clients to job sites on suburban bus routes, and the “Medicaid Taxi” service, which transports recipients to medical appointments. “It will cost an average of $38 for a roundtrip Medicaid cab ride,” she said, instead of the much smaller cost of a bus pass.

Bill Durfee spoke passionately about the leadership crisis within the NFTA, saying to loud crowd approval, “The executives aren’t bus people. They might as well be riding a space shuttle.” Durfee alleged conficts of interest among the NFTA commissioners, singling out developer Mark Croce, who represents major downtown parking interests.

Andrew Graham, from Voice Buffalo, a social action group, scornfully told of speaking to an NFTA commissioner who insisted that he wasn’t out of touch with the ridership: “I understand; I drive by people waiting for buses every day,” Graham quoted him saying.

The proposed cuts threaten to make the system untenable, especially for “reverse commuters,” urban residents who work in the suburbs and rely on the NFTA to get there. Many of the reverse commuter jobs are in human services and retail and require weekend shifts, and the proposed elimination of so many suburban weekend routes will affect hundreds of workers. Sonia Brand, for example, has worked at the Weinberg Campus in Amherst, since 1997. She loves her job, and she has to work weekends every other week. She depends on the 44 to get her there. “If they cut off the 44-Lockport bus, I’m jobless,” she said.

Ryan interjected to tell the audience, “Just to be clear, they’re cutting the 44.”

Ryan’s Assembly colleague, Crystal Peoples-Stokes, delivered the strongest message: “As an authority, the NFTA’s days should be numbered. Public transportation is almost like access to healthcare or education—people need that. It’s not a privilege. I think the NFTA should be disbanded. I think if you look at the commissionership, there is not one commissioner who actually represents the ridership…You don’t appoint them, you don’t elect them.”

Ryan invited the audience to join him in applause at this point.

“They’re people who represent business,” Peoples-Stokes continued, “and I don’t have a problem with businesspeople, I’m from a family of businesspeople. I have total respect for that. But I think if there were people like yourselves who were sitting there as commissioners [it would be different], [but] you would never get that opportunity. You have to get recommended by a governor, approved by the Senate. These things just don’t happen to a regular citizen. And there’s something about that agenda that doesn’t speak to the needs of the people that ride the transportation.”

The NFTA is quick to blame its troubles on diminishing state funding and declining revenue, but Buffalo’s public transit commuting rate still hovers around 15 percent, ranked 18 for cities larger than 100,000 souls. A report released last May by the Brookings Institution ranked Buffalo’s transit system as fifth best for job/transit accessibility among cities east of the Mississippi.

The system doesn’t lack ridership; it lacks organizational vision, creativity, and fiscal transparency. Kimberly Minkel was given the keys to the system and a $170,000 salary only 13 months ago, apparently chosen for her background in things like “environmental and safety regulations,” “compliance managing,” “quality assurance,” and experience managing “employee accidents including prevention, investigation, and behavior modification programs.” She resides in Lancaster and has local roots. While she appears every bit the qualified professional manager, doesn’t the NFTA deserve an executive with some knowledge and experience of public transportation? Couldn’t the NFTA attract a top-notch urban planner with experience in public transportation? Did the search committee consider applicants from outside of the area?

In a telephone interview from Albany this week, Ryan said that over the last 30 years, the NFTA had helped facilitate the loss of business, jobs, and human services from Buffalo, and now the authority threatens to make it even harder for city residents to get to them. The transit authority “has mimicked suburban sprawl,” he charged, at the same time it helped to subsidize it. It frequently agreed to run bus routes into the suburbs as businesses and professional services moved further outward, and the authority didn’t seek to get any cost offsets, unlike Rochester’s bus service.

“If transportation had been a cost factor,” Ryan said, maybe there would have been less of a rush to the suburbs. “And those of us left in the city have to help pay for this flight with tax dollars.”

Ryan said he had asked the state Budget Office to review the NFTA’s operation not, he said, because he suspected any financial mismanagement—“There’s no allegation that they’re putting the dime where it shouldn’t be”—but because the NFTA seems to have partly abandoned its proper mission, public transit. “They run two airports. How many areas our size have two airports? Chicago and New York [each] have two. Over the last decade, they’ve spent $1 to 1.5 million annually on the Niagara Falls airport, when the Buffalo Niagara International is only 18 [air] miles away. They’ve insisted on holding onto all those acres of unused waterfront land for decades.”

The NFTA is holding a series of public hearings on the matter in the coming weeks:

• January 30: ECC North Campus, Building B, Bretschger Hall, Room 401, 6pm.

• January 31: Niagara Falls City Hall Chambers, 6pm.

• February 1: Buffalo & Erie County Public Library Auditorium, noon & 6pm

• February 2: ECC South Campus Building 5 Cafeteria, 6pm.

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