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The NFTA Speaks

Fare increase? Service cuts? Both?

Faced with a nearly $15 million dollar budget shortfall, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority decided initially to pursue a drastic reduction in bus and train service that would greatly hamper what is a highly rated and well-used—especially in Buffalo—public transit system. Since the NFTA made its reduction proposal public, it has found itself at the center of a storm of criticism from lawmakers, local media outlets, and a public who suspect that the authority is being managed ineffectively.

Since the proposal was unveiled, however, some key developments have changed the course of the story:

• The NFTA has found ways to halve the deficit by some $7 million worth of layoffs and streamlining without affecting bus service directly;

• The New York State Authorities Budget Office has agreed to dig for the roots of the NFTA’s seemingly chronic economic woes at the behest of freshman Assemblyman Sean Ryan;

• Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget gives the NFTA a $2.9 million bump in funds; and

• there has been increased support for a fare increase to be implemented in the place of a service reduction.

Artvoice posed the following questions to NFTA spokesperson C. Douglas Hartmayer this week, to offer those who weren’t able to attend one of the recent public hearings a chance to get into the discussion.

AV: What has been the biggest surprise to you in recent weeks with the hearings and increased media attention?

Hartmayer: There were no real surprises coming out of the five public hearings. We understand the impact the proposed cuts will have on our customers and expect them to be as passionate as they were. As such, we will continue working to obtain additional state transit operating assistance and access to eight megawatts of low-cost power from the New York State Power Authority.

AV: Due to the NFTA’s fiscal crisis, has the Board of Commissioners given any thought to trimming the salaries of upper management in addition to the proposed service cuts, fare hikes, and layoffs?

Hartmayer: Implementing operational efficiencies began over three years ago, not just recently. Salaries of the NFTA’s management team have been trimmed by 12 percent from a year ago. Including the 2012-13 budget, non-represented employees have not had a salary increase in three of the last four budget cycles, non-represented employees health insurance contribution is being increased to 15 percent from 10 percent, and their vision plan is being eliminated. At the same time there has been a hiring embargo in place except for Metro bus operators and necessary safety personnel.

Throughout the NFTA, 42 of 50 planned position eliminations have taken place, the remaining eight will be eliminated shortly, overtime has been reduced and only allowed for extenuating circumstances. These are other initiative resulted in $7.7 million in savings in the 2012-13 budget.

Also, please let me put to rest the misconception that our Board of Commissioners are paid. They work pro bono; they do not receive any compensation for the work they perform on behalf of the authority.

AV: Kevin Gaughan wrote an intriguing opinion piece for the Buffalo News in which he said there are “115 support services managers” in the NFTA receiving salaries and benefits which total $11.4 million dollars. The NFTA Mission Statement says that support services “proactively provide high quality, coordinated, innovative, technological, cost-effective support service solutions for our internal and external stakeholders.” First of all, is Gaughan’s figure correct, and secondly, can you clarify what the Support Services do for the NFTA?

Hartmayer: 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.

As in any business as diversified as the NFTA, there needs to be support services to “support” the efforts of our business centers. We have employees who provide services in areas such as accounting, MIS, engineering, printing, labor relations, legal, human resources, customer service, marketing, and diversity. It should be noted that these employees work on behalf of each business center, increasing the overall effectiveness of the authority.

AV: Some lawmakers have criticized the NFTA’s role in subsidizing the Niagara Falls Airport to the tune of $900,000-$1.5 million annually. What is the vision for the future of NFTA’s role in this airport and how can the NFTA justify spending this much money on a secondary airport?

Hartmayer: The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has designated the Niagara Falls International Airport (NFIA) a reliever airport for the Buffalo Niagara International Airport (BNIA). Contrary to what some people may believe, the two airports do no compete, but actually complement each other. Most recently the new terminal has played an ever-increasing role in the economic growth of the Niagara region. According to the New York Statewide Airport Economic Impacts Study of May 2011, the NFIA has a total impact of $158.6 million, supporting 1,706 jobs in the region. The NFTA’s role is to continue developing aviation service at this facility. In 2011, the outbound passenger total increased by 184 percent. On average, 75 percent of the people using the NFIA are Canadian. That translates into new revenue for restaurants, hotels, and retail stores and additional sales tax that helps stimulate the Niagara Falls economy.

Specific to your question regarding the NFTA subsidizing the NFIA at the expense of Metro, it’s a moot point. The combined net budgeted surplus for both the Buffalo and Niagara Falls airports is $4.94 million for fiscal year-end 2012. The FAA allows for a maximum of $4.5 million to be diverted for non-aviation purposes, which the NFTA has done for years to support Metro Bus and Rail operations. The true reality is, the NFIA’s deficit has no bearing whatsoever of the shortfall Metro is facing.

AV: Does the lack of a current chairman, with Henry Sloma filling in for the time being, affect the NFTA’s ability to make good decisions?

Hartmayer: 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.

AV: Would the NFTA be open to adding a citizen spokeperson (ie, an active user of the NFTA transit system who can represent the needs of the public) to the Board of Commissioners in the future?

Hartmayer: The governor appoints the members to our board. If this were to happen, I’m sure the commissioners would welcome such an addition. Further, please know that we are in the process of developing a Citizens Advisory Panel made up of Metro customers and transit advocates so that we can ensure there is an open line of communication between our customers and staff.

AV: There’s been a lot of public speculation that the service cuts were engineered to make a fare hike more palatable. I know Henry Sloma has denied this is the case, but can you blame folks for arriving at that conclusion? What really happened?

Hartmayer: As reported, the board, in an effort to gather as many facts as possible regarding proposed Metro service reductions and/or a fare adjustment, held a number of meetings that were attended by elected officials and community leaders. At that time, their comments to the board indicated that the people they represented could not afford a fare increase and asked the board not to impose one. Upon listening to their collective comments the board subsequently voted to initiate the public hearing process for proposed Metro service reductions to close a $7.1 million budget deficit, minus a fare increase.

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