The Buffalo Metro Rail
Are you sure you know the whole story?
The city of Buffalo, New York has consistently suffered from bad publicity and the persistent roadblocks of a bureaucratic system. From the Blizzard of 1977 to the Buffalo Bills streak of lost superbowls, there are many events that reflect these issues. Spanning these two events has been the controversial and continual struggle of the Niagara Frontier Transit Authority's (NFTA) Metro rail, a light rail rapid transit system (LRRT). The LRRT was to transform the city of Buffalo into a booming metropolis that would enjoy the conveniences and economic benefits of moving large numbers of people efficiently and ecologically. The Buffalo Metro Rail would be just what was needed to revitalize downtown. The problems of attaining this goal surfaced right from the beginning. The NFTA found out that they must also be able to leap tall hurdles, deflect scathing accusations, and see into the future of Western New York with accuracy.
More than 170,000 households in Greater Buffalo do not have a car (LaKamp A1,6). For those who do have a vehicle, fighting rush-hour traffic, the cost of downtown parking, and the cost of operating a car are detrimental, both physically and mentally. NFTA has spent millions of dollars on consultants and studies in an attempt to fill the needs of Buffalo citizens and improve the public transportation ridership in this city with little success. The key to improving the quality of life in the City of Buffalo is improving how its people get around. Public transportation will be the catalyst for improving the entire area if it is efficient and effective.
The city of Buffalo and the NFTA have demonstrated how bureaucracies can impede progress from the inception of the Rapid Transit. The system had its problems from the beginning with the initial contract bidding. Federal and State regulations, in addition to restrictions set by the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA), dictated that minority contractors must be awarded 12.2 percent of the work bid out for the project (Dibble A21). This is a standard clause for public works projects that is based on population information. The NFTA has been in litigation and scrutinized for its blatant disregard of these policies and for the way that it conducted the bid process. One of the contractors that was awarded part of the project was initially listed as a minority contractor and was later reassigned as a non-minority contractor with no explanation regarding the misrepresentation. One local contractor, VanWert-Snyder-Sklarsky-Rowland of Tonawanda, submitted a bid that was far below the bid ultimately accepted with no explanation whatsoever of the procedures used by the NFTA. This project was to create hundreds of construction and engineering jobs that would be a boon for Buffalo area businesses. It was so large that it even dwarfed the "famous hydropower installations at Niagara Falls" according to the NFTA ("Metro History"). Paul H. VanWert of VanWert-Snyder-Sklarsky-Rowland states that "Only three local firms got subcontracts" (qtd. in Dibble A21). Another contractor, Walter L. Jones Corp., submitted a bid that was two-thirds the cost of the accepted bid. This irregularity would have been acceptable if the contract was for construction or design that required extensive experience in rail or tunnel construction, but according to the Buffalo Evening News, the bid was for a simple cut-and-cover operation ($16M Suit A31). These conflicts and unfair bidding practices overshadowed the positive aspects of the rail system from its infancy.
The bidding procedures were far from the only complication in the beginning of the Metro Rail Project. There were also significant changes in the design of the rail. In the original plans, Phase I was to be an eleven mile stretch from the Memorial Auditorium through SUNY Buffalo's South Campus and ending at SUNY Buffalo's North Campus. The Main Street Stations were to draw large numbers of the downtown workforce; the University District (LaSalle and South Campus stations) was to draw from a population base of approximately 47,000 residents; and at the far north side, the North Campus alone was to draw a student population of 27,000. Phase II was to extend from South Campus to the Tonawandas. In an application for deletion to UMTA, Phase I was trimmed down to exclude the LaSalle Station, the Tonawanda Turnout that would facilitate the continuance to the Tonawandas, and to completely stop at South Campus excluding the University District and all of Amherst and the Tonawandas. The NFTA's stated reason for the deletion was that additional funds were needed to make improvements in the construction and design of the downtown pedestrian mall that ran over-budget. The NFTA then proceeded to switch gears again and re-apply to UMTA for more funds to reinstate the LaSalle Station and the Tonawanda Turnout after protests from a very angry public. The vocal University District Councilwoman Rosemarie LoTempio, at a meeting in September of '82, said "We're going to march on UMTA if we have to and we're going to be heard" (qtd. in Dibble B1). In response to the Councilwoman and the angry public that agreed with her, the NFTA revised their application for funding by amending $26.4 million to their Phase I funding application to UMTA. The numerous changes throughout the construction of Phase I were another contribution to the black cloud that has hung over the Metro Rail Project.
The revision of the funding application to UMTA was only a glimpse into what the future would bring to the Metro Rail System. Phase I had been almost cut in half: down to 6.2 miles from the initial eleven miles, leaving Amherst in limbo. Phase II was to start at the Tonawanda Turnout and continue north just across the Erie Canal in North Tonawanda. The next phase in the project was just labeled as future possibilities: flanking the city along the waterfront to the north and through South Buffalo and Cheektowaga to the south. There have been continuing discussions, planning, and funding meetings for all of the options that were tabled in the midst of the first phase. The most promising of these options was an offer by Edward F. Michalik of Adrian Development, a minority owned company, based in Denver. Robert McCarthy of The Buffalo News states, "A private developer is offering to finance, design and construct Metro Rail extensions to Amherst . . . then lease the completed system back to the [NFTA]" (B4). On its face, this offer was a great idea. According to McCarthy, the project would have been completed in time for the University Games of 1993 creating a substantial short-term source of revenue for the NFTA (B4). In the long run, this project would have given 27,000 students and the residents of Amherst access to the rail and significantly reduced traffic congestion in the University District and the I-290. The NFTA, however, decided that this option was not feasible due to the long-term lease payments that would be incurred. If we check the math they used to make their decision it would raise several questions as to the real reason they declined. Adrian Development may not have been the right company for the job, but the NFTA dismissed the entire idea along with the proposing developer. This is yet another hurdle that the NFTA did not clear well on its road to the rail system.
The Metro Rail faces severe roadblocks that continually impede its progress. One of the largest obstacles to improvement of the NFTA's Rapid Transit is the consistent refusal by surrounding townships to support, financially and publicly, the need to expand the rail system to its full potential. The two branches that are most questionable are the Tonawanda and Amherst lines. Both of these extensions would serve large numbers of suburban populations who are currently complaining about the rush-hour traffic of Interstate 190, an inbound toll road that connects the Tonawandas to downtown Buffalo via the Youngman Expressway (I-290). Town of Tonawanda Supervisor Ronald H. Moline states, "The Town Board would not be inclined to help fund the extension" (qtd. in McNeil E7). Representatives of the Board claim that the town does not have the revenues necessary to contribute to the project, despite the large number of their constituents that would be able to fully utilize this branch. Town of Amherst Supervisor Daniel J. Ward also opposes the extension to the North Campus of the University of Buffalo but for different reasons. Supervisor Ward states "The [Town of Amherst] board does not . . . [feel] that both the town and the region need the rail line extended from the South Campus of the University at Buffalo to the Amherst Campus" (Ward C2). Supervisor Ward is adamant that his constituents elected him on the basis that he supports Amherst's planned growth. A Rapid Transit infiltration would destroy any control that Amherst currently has over its own destiny. These two towns are a stumbling block for the NFTA's plans for completing and expanding the current rail system.
In addition to community objections, the NFTA also faces hindrances due to its own decision-making and political skills. The NFTA somehow continues to experience the same ineptitude from different combinations of board members and directors year after year. Councilwoman Rosemarie LoTempio, vocal advocate of the Rapid Transit, wishing to speak at an NFTA board meeting was told "It's not on the agenda. This is a meeting, not a hearing" by James H. Wolford, acting NFTA chairman (qtd. in Dibble A1). Mrs. LoTempio then responded "That means we're being given a chance to meet with you only after the fact of your action" (qtd. in A1).
The NFTA doesn't even listen to its own advice. A proposal in September of 1990 for the Tonawanda expansion using second-hand trolley cars from Cleveland, according to The Buffalo News, "was rejected 3-1 by the NFTA's Capital and Planning Committee" (Anzalone C1). Richard T. Swist, former NFTA Director, states "We have 12 old Cleveland trolleys that we can refurbish and run into the Tonawandas" (qtd. in Levy C1). Even after their own committee refused the proposal to purchase the trolley cars, the NFTA bought them and put them in storage for a rainy day. This persistent practice of not listening to public sentiment, professional judgement, or even their own committee findings continues to be a hindrance to progress on this issue.
In order to avoid further deterioration of the Rapid Transit, the NFTA must also deal with their image problem. According to Harold McNeil of The Buffalo News, "Local governments' unwillingness to contribute to the extension is a barometer of public sentiment" (E7). Lewis Harriman, chairman of The Citizens Rapid Transit Committee, says of Niagara County Commissioner of Public Works Donald Smith, who sits on the Niagara Frontier Transportation Committee on behalf of the Niagara County Legislature, "[Donald Smith] has always been the archenemy of any rail development" (qtd. in Cardinale C1). Mr. Harriman also states:
It is shameful to have invested a half billion dollars in a rail line to reach a billion-dollar campus and rest content that they never be joined, thus substantially wasting an enormous taxpayer investment. Furthermore, such irresponsibility leaving half a railroad in place tends to justify the unthinking critics of both projects who complain of their cost-effectiveness. (C3)
Mr. Harriman's words reflect the sentiment of a large portion of the Greater Buffalo population. Half a railroad does not a Rapid Transit make. If the NFTA had completed even one of the extensions, making the rail useful to a respectable percentage of the area's population, there would be more support for further expansion. In addition to many other roadblocks the NFTA is encountering, the image of this road to nowhere contributes to the unwillingness of the general public to support any further projects for the LRRT.
The NFTA, despite decreasing population and ridership, has made attempts to solve its public transportation problems and failed. One proposed attempt to improve the NFTA is the hublink program. The hublink program is a device that will coordinate express bus, van, carpool, and other modes of transportation to feed in and out of the Rapid Transit system (Collison B4). On the surface, this seems like an ideal solution to improving public transportation and ridership of the rail system, but, taking a closer look, there has to be a reason for people to use the system instead of their cars. People without cars are already forced to use public transportation. The NFTA needs to tap into the large numbers of people that have cars but would find the Metro convenient and economical. The combined cost of parking, fuel, and depreciation of the family car is not high enough in Buffalo for the NFTA's monthly flash pass to provide substantial savings. New bus schedules fail to solve anything unless ridership is significant enough to reduce traffic congestion on the highways they travel (Harriman C3). The least attractive feature of this program is the amount of time it would take to actually make the commute. After a one hour bus trip to work while his car was in for repairs, Gary Willis, a city-to-suburb commuter, says, "If I can get there in 10 minutes by driving, I'm not going to take the bus" (LaKamp A1, 6). Why would any commuter want to spend three to six times longer getting to work on a bus, while fighting the same amount of traffic, just to link up with a 6.4 mile rail system?
In addition to the hublink program, the NFTA has also proposed a Tonawanda Rail corridor that would use current right-of-way rail lines. The Tonawanda proposal consists of using trolley cars that were purchased in 1990. These trolley cars are currently mothballed waiting for extensive refurbishing that would prepare them for use on standard rail lines. The worst part of this program is that it would tie into the existing Metro Rail at LaSalle Station where commuters would have to transfer from the above ground trolleys to the underground rail (Levy C1). This transfer would be a significant inconvenience to riders who could have taken their cars to work and be better utilizing their time.
The proposed Amherst section presents many of the same problems as the Tonawanda Trolley line. The Amherst line is proposed as an underground continuation of the current system, continuing where the earlier project left off, at the South Campus station. The Amherst proposal has the added ingredient of being classified as a pork-belly politics project according to the newest federal mandates regarding public works projects, because the economic benefits of the project exceeds the transportation benefits. Both of these corridors face the same issues as the hublink program. The current time and cost of commuting from the Tonawandas or Amherst is small in comparison to the time that it takes to use the Rapid Transit and its proposed coordinating systems.
Another attempt the NFTA has made involves substantial service cuts that it felt would make significant cuts in expenses. The NFTA cut the frequency of its rail schedule along with its bus route system from 1993-1997 by 6% (LaKamp A1,6). During this time frame, ridership decreased by 16%. The City of Milwaukee, a similar sized transit system, increased its service schedule by 13% and was able to keep its loss of ridership down to 5% despite the decline in population (A1,6). This is obviously not the way to improve financial stability. The decrease in expenses was not large enough to compensate for the decrease in fare revenues. In addition to fare revenues, many of the federal subsidies that the NFTA relies on to support its deficit budget are based on ridership statistics. With a large, disproportionate drop in fare revenues when service expenses are cut, the NFTA must strive to avoid any actions that will cause ridership to drop.
The key to improving public transportation in Buffalo revolves around improving the effectiveness of the Metro Rail. The most significant solution to this transportation crisis is instituting the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). BRT is a simplified, bargain solution that will satisfy the transportation needs of the Greater Buffalo area. This system consists of linking major suburban populations with newly created roadways that are used only for buses. Commuters would be able to drive or walk a short distance to the local BRT station and board a bus that would take them, non-stop or with few stops, to the nearest Metro Rail station. This would substantially increase the total ridership of the Metro Rail by efficiently linking inbound and outbound commuters with the entire NFTA system, without the large capital and operating expenditures that would be incurred with other proposed options (Collison B4). Bus Rapid Transit is the least expensive method of expanding public transportation services (Wagner B8). The NFTA would use current bus and para-transit vehicles, depending on the actual ridership in the area served. The only capital expenditure would be building the busways. Construction of busways would be very economical because the NFTA already owns miles of unused railroad tracks that would be quick and easy to convert. Increasing ridership without a proportional increase in operating expenses with the BRT is a key to making the Metro Rail an effective and efficient transportation organization.
In addition to the Bus Rapid Transit, the NFTA must respond to consumer demands by servicing the needs of two underutilized markets: theatre patrons and carless households. With the revitalization of the theatre district, the NFTA needs to encourage suburban patrons of the arts and other downtown events to park-and-ride on the weekend. The schedule must run outbound as late as midnight, leaving plenty of time to stop for a cappuccino after the theatre and to still catch the last train home. Carless citizens who have a dire need for transportation to work, healthcare, and church or community centers must also find the Rapid Transit an effective solution to their transportation dilemmas. The NFTA must use need-based route scheduling to respond to the demands of the carless riders in urban areas if they are to increase their farebox revenues with any sense of regularity. According to Mark Pritchard of The Community Transportation Association of America, "Most human service agencies, hospitals, and, increasingly, private businesses all operate fleets of vehicles for passenger transportation" (2). The existence of these fleets is a red flag for the NFTA that indicated these organizations find that current schedules are not sufficient for the transportation needs of their clients and employees. If so many organizations have a need for transportation, the NFTA is not doing the job that the public is paying them for. In addition to continuing the improvement of access for the handicapped and elderly with its para-transit services, the NFTA needs to change their current fixed-based bus routes and integrate urban bus routes with the Rapid Transit to better serve the communities whose best option is public transportation. Being aware of the needs of its customers is necessary to improving the Metro Rail.
Like responding to the needs of transit consumers, financial stability through a predictable revenue source is an important key to improvement. Newly enacted Federal regulations have limited the length of time a person can receive public assistance. These regulations do not solve the problem of how these people will find transportation to the jobs and training programs they are required to attend, even though these low-income families make up the majority of Buffalo's carless households. The Metro Rail system can be an integral part of assisting in these needs if the NFTA holds itself out as a solution. Currently, Social Services offers a gas coupon program to assist recipients during the transformation from public assistance to gainful employment (Miller 2). The NFTA must work with the Social Services Department of Erie County and offer the monthly flash pass as an alternative to this program. This would be a beneficial situation for both the NFTA and the community. The citizens of Buffalo that must find a job will have a reliable means of transportation and the NFTA will have a predictable revenue source.
In addition to financial stability, changes in schedules will only be effective if the NFTA can change their image. The Metro Rail has received bad publicity since its inception. The NFTA's new Executive Director, Lawrence Meckler, has formulated a response with a long-overdue changes in the logo, bus colors, and uniforms. These changes must be reflective of attitude changes at the every level of the NFTA structure and must be part of a total image re-creation (Bogren 3). Executives and bus drivers alike must be retrained to understand and implement customer service as an integral part of improving ridership and overall quality. The marketing department must understand this message and relay it to consumers by advertising the new look, attitude, and schedules of the NFTA. Improving the image of the NFTA can be just the catalyst needed to breathe new life into the organization.
The history of the NFTA Metro Rail has been, at the least, a rocky road. Residents of Buffalo can only hope that the future can bring about positive change. The NFTA has, planned, surveyed, and consulted on several different ways of improving the Rapid Transit in Buffalo. Most of these attempts have been plans that would do more for the employment level of the area, than to improve the transportation system itself. Their solutions must not only enhance their ability to move people from one point to the next; they must also be cost effective. The NFTA must overcome the past mistake of spending large amounts of money on studies and not putting into practice what has been learned. They must concentrate on solutions that will be both economically feasible and serve the needs of the taxpayer.
The NFTA must show the citizens of Greater Buffalo that its new management does care about meeting their needs. By instituting significant changes in the way that they fulfill the needs of the community and by regaining the trust of the community, the Metro Rail will become the transportation organization that the City of Buffalo needs to propel the area into the next century. They can prove to the public that they do have the best interests of the community at heart. For the NFTA to truly add to the prosperity of the City of Buffalo, it must learn how to act as an efficient and effective organization, bringing together the needs and wants of the communities that it serves while maintaining sound fiscal and political policy. The NFTA can become a healthy, essential part of the successful future of Buffalo.
Anzalone, Charles. "Panel Picks Swist to Head NFTA; Confirmation Expected Monday. The Buffalo News 7 Sept. 1990: C1.
Bogren, Scott. "A Tale of Two Transit Networks." Community Transportation Association of America :3.
Cardinale, Anthony. "Group Eyes Windfall for Rail Extension." The Buffalo News 17 Aug. 1992: C1.
Collison, Kevin. "NFTA Board Shows Support for Hublink Concept." The Buffalo News 16 April. 1996: B4.
Dibble, Ralph. "Complaints Arise as NFTA Applies for Transit Funds." The Buffalo Evening News 16 Sept. 1982: A1.
Dibble, Ralph. "Local Firm Upset by Lack of Work." The Buffalo Evening News 9 July 1979: A21.
Harriman, Jr., Lewis G. "An Unrealized Dream: a Rapid Rail Link From City to UB-Amherst." The Buffalo News 23 April, 1990: C3.
LaKamp, Patrick. "Loss of Riders Hurts Metro Bus, Rail." The Buffalo News 21 Sept. 1999: A1,6.
Levy, Michael. "Bridge Removal Kills 'Tonawanda Turnout.'" The Buffalo News17 Oct. 1994: C1.
McCarthy, Robert J. "Developer proposes Metro Rail extensions." The Buffalo News 10 Aug. 1989: B4.
McNeil, Harold. "Tonawanda Panel Eyes Rail Extension Survey." The Buffalo News 18 Oct. 1991: E7.
Miller, Janine. "Welfare Reform in Rural Areas: A Special Community Transportation Report." Community Transportation Association of America <http://www.ctaa.org/ct/sepoct96/special.html>: 2.
Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. "Metro History." NFTA Website (8 Sept. 1999 Tonawanda, NY.)
Pritchard, Mark. "A New Tulsa Transit Emerges Out of the Old." Community Transportation Association of America July/Aug 1999 :2.
Wagner, Bob. "Bus Rapid Transit May Be Cheaper Alternative to Light Rail." The Buffalo News 5 Sept. 1999: B8.
Ward, Daniel. "Why Amherst Board Said "No" to Rail Line." The Buffalo News 19 March 1990: C2.
"$16 Million Suit Filed by Jones Against NFTA." The Buffalo Evening News 13 July 1979: A31.