The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority runs a relatively inefficient transit system burdened with problems rooted in a dramatic decline in the number of riders, an analysis by The Buffalo News shows.
From 1993 to 1997, the number of Metro Bus and Rail riders has dropped 16.5 percent, the third-largest decline among the nation's 50 largest bus systems, federal statistics show.
"Whatever they're doing, they're not getting bodies in the chairs," said David Hartgen, a transit expert at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "For the kind of money they're spending, they're not getting enough riders."
Metro is not necessarily wasting money.
Its expenses, in fact, have risen at a slower pace in recent years than those of all but a few other bus systems of comparable size.
But such economy has been costly in the numbers of riders. Reduced bus service over the years has contributed to the slump, bus officials say.
Other factors working against the system include a decreasing population and low traffic volume on area expressways, allowing for fast commutes for those opting to use their own vehicles.
The recent experience of a Buffalo sales consultant who works in Cheektowaga typifies why many don't take the bus anywhere.
Gary Willis, 46, took the bus to work after his car broke down and found his quick city-to-suburb com
mute stretched to an hour on Metro Bus and Rail.
"If I can get there in 10 minutes by driving, I'm not going to take the bus," Willis said.
Since 1993, the number of annual trips on Metro Bus has decreased by more than 5 million, roughly a 16 percent decline.
And with the number of riders falling, everything else looks bad:
Metro pays more to move one bus passenger one mile than all but one of the dozen other bus systems considered its peers. Metro pays 78 cents per passenger-mile, while systems in Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Cincinnati pay less.
In another telling category, the hourly cost of operating a bus, Metro was sixth among the 13 systems.
Fare revenue has been flat, with Metro collecting 1 percent less in 1997 than in 1993.
The loss of riders has been bad for the system's bottom line. Less money is coming in from passengers, while government aid has held steady. The costs of running buses and trains, on the other hand, have risen.
The NFTA projects Metro will lose $2.2 million in the fiscal year that will end March 31. The authority's rental income from properties near Buffalo Niagara International Airport and the Buffalo waterfront helps cover the transit losses.
Metro lost $6,843 last year and $828,041 the year before that.
Metro's 330 buses and 27 rail cars run up to 20 hours a day, seven days a week, serving about 1 million residents. Metro operates 57 bus routes, carrying about 90,000 passengers on buses and trains each week day.
Still, on balance, Metro's performance adds up to a poor showing.
Metro ranks 105th out of 137 systems nationwide for cost-effectiveness, according to a recent study by Hartgen.
The transit industry complains that Hartgen's comparison doesn't take into account differences among the agencies. Santa Monica, Calif., for example, was rated as the top agency. Santa Monica's system serves 51 square miles in a single urban area, while Metro covers 1,575 square miles in Erie and Niagara counties.
Clearly, bus systems are prisoners of their geography.
But comparing how similar-sized bus systems spend their money and deploy their fleets offers insight into how other communities support public transportation.
Between 1993 and 1997, Milwaukee's system, which serves about the same number of people as Metro, increased the number of buses it put on the streets during peak hours by 13 percent. The number of riders declined about 5 percent.
Metro cut its bus fleet size by 6 percent during that time and lost 16 percent of its riders.
Cincinnati's system serves a population about a quarter-million less than that of Metro and spends $10 million less on operating expenses. But Cincinnati's system carries more riders, in part by putting 50 more buses on its streets than Metro does during peak hours.
The Portland, Ore., serves a population about equal to that of the Niagara Frontier but carries nearly three times as many riders -- 71 million a year vs. 26 million. The average Portland resident rides transit 72 times a year, while the average Buffalo or Niagara Falls resident rides 22 times.
The reason is simple, said Deborah Finn, NFTA director of surface transportation.
Portland gets more riders because it offers more service. Portland values a comprehensive transit service and is willing to pay for it. In addition to fares, the average Portland resident pays $109 annually to support public transportation, while the figure on the Niagara Frontier is about $33.
NFTA officials say they are focusing more on pulling Metro out of its slump than on the system's ranking in studies like Hartgen's.
Metro is gearing up for a big push to add riders by increasing bus trips and improving weekend service on more than a dozen bus routes, including Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst, Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo and Pine Avenue in Niagara Falls. Metro Rail hours on Sunday evenings have been extended.
"We're not losing riders because we're doing a bad job but because people are leaving," said C. Douglas Hartmayer, an NFTA spokesman.
If they haven't left the area altogether, they have moved from the city to the suburbs, where public transportation is less available.
Reducing service to trim expenses won't turn the picture around.
"So what we're doing is saying, OK, let's deal with the opportunities out there where we should be building ridership," Hartmayer said.
Metro cannot appeal only to people without cars to attract more riders.
"That's tapping into a flat market," Hartgen said.
Metro will have to attract the "choice" riders, the people who own cars and don't have to take the bus to work, school or shopping.
Metro's service area contains an estimated 170,000 households with one car.
"If there are 170,000 households out there that have only one car, and we have 110,000 daily (trips), we've got quite a market we can tap into," Ms. Finn said.
In other cities, bus systems can capitalize on traffic congestion to persuade people to ride the bus.
That won't work on the Niagara Frontier.
The average number of cars per day on each lane of expressways and highways in the nation's 65 biggest cities was nearly 14,000 in 1997.
This area's interstate highways averaged 9,151 cars.
"That's going to make it harder for Metro to get riders," Hartgen said. "If you don't have a lot of congestion, then there's no incentive for people to get out of their cars to avoid congestion."
If they take the bus, their trips will last longer because of all the bus stops and possible transfers.
Willis, the sales consultant from Buffalo, learned that last week.
Driving from his Minnesota Avenue home to his job at a Cheektowaga collections agency takes 10 minutes.
By Metro Bus and Rail, the trip took an hour.
"I didn't mind it today," he said while waiting for his bus at the South Campus bus loop. "If I had to do it every day, I'd mind it."
While many regular bus riders say they are satisfied with Metro and the bus drivers, they would like to see better holiday and weekend service.
Kathy Wright, 42, of Buffalo, a home-care aide, depends on the bus system to get to a patient's home in the Town of Tonawanda.
But she doesn't bother going to work if a holiday falls in the middle of the week. The bus leaves too late for her to get to the patient's home on time.
"I just take off," she said.
In addition to increasing service, Metro will emphasize another pitch to attract more riders: saving money.
Metro hopes to convince car owners that taking the bus would allow them to avoid parking and fuel costs.
Metro is shooting for a 1.7 percent increase in the number of riders by March 31, an ambitious goal after six straight years of ridership losses.
The surest way to add riders is with clean buses driven by polite drivers who arrive on time, said Ms. Finn, hired as the director of Metro Bus and Rail last December.
Under her management, 225 bus drivers and other Metro employees have gone through 32 hours of training in courtesy and how to deal with difficult encounters with riders. That's about one-third of the front-line staff. Eventually, all the drivers will receive such training.
The drivers also are wearing new uniforms, blue in color to give them a more professional appearance, she said.
In December, the Metro Bus fleet will add 21 new low-floor buses, which will allow passengers to board without having to climb a couple of steps.
"We're going to be saying to the public, before the year is out, here's our new face," Ms. Finn said. "There's a new day here."