Expanding the rail commute in Western New York - The Buffalo News

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Expanding the rail commute in Western New York

An expanded rail or bus system stretching from the University at Buffalo’s South Campus on Main Street in Buffalo to its North Campus in Amherst may be as many as seven years in the future, but the concept appears more timely – and popular – than ever.

The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority is wrapping up a study of how and where to expand into Amherst, and support for expansion appears stronger than it has been at any time since Metro Rail planners inked their first sketches back in the 1970s.

A rail-based expansion would double Metro Rail use to about 50,000 commuters each day.

“Based on our preliminary evaluation, the ridership values are there,” said NFTA Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel.

What’s more, the “tone we hear out there is that this is overdue,” said Thomas George, director of public transit.

By the end of this year, NFTA planners will recommend either a rail or bus mode, including specific routes. More studies will be requested to determine costs and environmental ramifications. The agency then expects to present a strong case to the federal government for money to build a system linking the city and suburbs, citing increased traffic and development in Amherst and a continuing need for transit links to new development downtown.

Options from the $1.5 million federally funded study recently completed include:

• A rail route stretching under Bailey Avenue from University Station on UB’s South Campus for 1.5 miles before surfacing in the Bailey/Eggert vicinity near Northtown Plaza. A surface line would then serve Niagara Falls Boulevard and turn east on Maple Road before veering into UB’s North Campus via Sweet Home and Rensch roads.

• An alternative rail route would burrow under Millersport Highway for about 1.5 miles before surfacing near Buckeye Road, south of Sheridan Drive, and continuing on to UB.

• “Bus rapid transit” also is under discussion. It would feature dedicated lanes, synchronized signals and enhanced stations served by long, “articulated” buses able to bend around curves.

• A lesser, “preferred bus” option using synchronized signaling with enhanced stations and amenities – similar to what is planned for Niagara Street in Buffalo later this year – represents another option.

• Doing nothing also will be considered, though that recommendation is not expected to be made.

The study indicates that just about all stakeholders prefer extending Metro Rail, though it would probably cost five times more than bus rapid transit.

Participation by UB and its North, South and downtown campuses (envisioned in the original 1970s plans) is deemed critical. Without UB – which supports the study – the NFTA does not envision moving forward.

George called the new level of support “very encouraging and a bit surprising.”

Expansion hinges upon convincing UB that its students and staff would benefit from convenient service that cuts commuting times.

The study shows that if UB dropped its “Stampede” bus system in favor of Metro Rail to transport students among the three campuses, more than 24,000 additional riders would be attracted to a new rail system, George said. Only about 10,000 or 11,000 new riders would result without UB’s cooperation, probably causing the NFTA to shelve the concept.

“If the Stampede bus stays, there’s no sense in us making this investment,” Minkel said.

UB on board

So far, the university is on board.

“There’s definitely an interest, but they want to see frequency, capacity and transit time,” George said. “They don’t want to see any degradation of the current times. If their trip took 10 or 15 minutes longer, I think it would temper the interest a lot.”

UB’s interest appears anything but tempered. The university prefers to avoid contracting with the private buses, said Laura E. Hubbard, vice president for finance and administration.

“We don’t exist to run a transportation system,” she said. “Our mission is education and research.”

UB supports at least studying expansion as the university looks to “repopulate” its South Campus when its medical school moves downtown to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus in 2017, Hubbard said. But she emphasized that the service must meet the needs of faculty and students “so people will actually ride it.”

With UB already maintaining 1 million square feet of downtown real estate and planning for another 600,000 square feet at the new medical school (to be incorporated into Metro Rail’s Allen-Medical Campus Station), the need and “critical mass” intensifies. How the university “efficiently moves people around,” Hubbard said, will become even more of a key question.

Minkel, meanwhile, sees a natural fit between UB and Metro.

“If we do light-rail transit or bus rapid transit, it will be quicker than their system,” she said. “It’s difficult to believe they can build a better mouse trap.”

‘One seat’ preferable

Exactly how the NFTA will move those new riders remains a key question.

Minkel said 90 percent of those participating in the study prefer extending the Metro Rail system, completed in 1985, from its terminus at University Station on the South Campus.

Planners like the idea of extending Metro Rail, George said, because the “one seat concept” – conceivably from UB North to Canalside – proves more attractive to riders than transferring from bus to rail.

“There is a certain segment of our community that will get on a train every day but will not get on a bus,” he said.

While planners also studied continuing either bus or rail to the CrossPoint business park about five miles away in North Amherst, enthusiasm for that option appears to be cooling for now because of the lack of density between UB and CrossPoint. But the idea remains under consideration.

If rail is selected, it will prove expensive. The 6.4-mile line serving the City of Buffalo cost $535 million to build more than three decades ago.

The Niagara Falls Boulevard rail extension to the North Campus would total 5.6 miles, while the Millersport extension would total 4.2 miles. Everyone associated with planning for the new project predicts major expenditures again.

That leads to consideration of alternatives like bus rapid transit or preferred bus, which is planned for Niagara Street in Buffalo later this year.

“Let’s be honest. Cost will come into the discussion,” George said, acknowledging that even bus rapid transit will prove expensive.

“These are significant transportation investments,” he added. “But it’s also for the very long term. This is not something that we build and it wears out in eight or 10 years.”

And while 1.5 miles of subway construction presents significant costs, George said challenges also await planners in determining how a rail system would interact with existing traffic while extending down the middle of Niagara Falls Boulevard, running along its sides, or cutting into private property.

Williamsville wants in

UB is not the only stakeholder interested in new transit options.

Williamsville Mayor Brian J. Kulpa has been clamoring for attention from transit planners as the study proceeds. He said enhanced transportation in Buffalo’s northern suburbs “should have happened a long time ago” as population has increased, businesses have sprouted and traffic snarls have arisen on Main Street in the village.

He is seeking “creativity and forward thinking, and not just the backward logic of connecting to the UB campus.”

“We’ve asked the NFTA to broaden their study and not just fixate on a single corridor,” Kulpa said, citing traffic congestion on Main Street, new development near Wehrle Drive, millennials turning to public transit, and 80,000 people residing in the Williamsville ZIP code. While he neither expects nor advocates that the Buffalo subway extend into the village, he believes that as the study nears completion, attention should be paid to linking the village with any new or enhanced service.

“I would like them to look at bus rapid transit alternatives right down Route 5,” he said, citing the need for links to key centers like Daemen College and Erie Community College North. “It’s a matter now of asking for something better for the community.”

Kulpa’s requests are being heeded by the NFTA, which recently has moved to include Williamsville and other municipalities like the Town of Tonawanda in the study process.

“The same discussion needs to take place with them, as well,” the NFTA’s George said of Tonawanda. “How do they fit into the bigger picture?”

George doubts Williamsville will merit a major investment like bus rapid transit, but notes that feeding the transit system with more riders is “critical” to the project and that alternatives like “preferred bus” remain real possibilities.

“Yes, we want them, as well,” he said of Williamsville. “We just have to find the mode.”

Amherst Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein, meanwhile, sounds a more cautious note. He labeled as a “misconception” any idea that the town welcomes an enhanced system until specifics of the ongoing study are finalized.

“I’ll wait to see what they come up with,” he said. “I have asked specific questions on how to pay for all this, and no one has an answer to that.”

Weinstein said he is “all for” better service, adding the bus-centered proposals “made a lot of sense” to him.

“But I won’t buy a pig in a poke,” he said. “And there’s no way the town will pay for any part of it.”

Next phase

Until the NFTA gets to the next phase of the extension study, expected to begin next year and to last for 12 to 18 months, many of the questions about cost will remain unanswered.

Right now, nobody is addressing which local entities might have to pay for a new system and how much. But George pointed to the state’s friendly mindset toward public transportation, stemming from the needs of New York City’s giant Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and noted that the state spends more each year on transit than 43 other states combined. As a result, the NFTA hopes for state participation, noting that Albany could cover any local share requirement imposed by the federal government.

He also expressed optimism about Washington’s approval.

“It falls into the medium range for a project,” George said of the project’s meeting criteria used for federal funding. “It definitely rises to the top when competing for federal funds.”

The Federal Transit Administration appears receptive to receiving more applications from the NFTA to further study an expansion, but is making no commitments. Washington officials say money is available for systems like Buffalo’s under the “New Starts/Small Starts” program, though competition is fierce for a limited amount of money.

In an unrelated expansion study, the authority also is exploring the possibility of extending Metro Rail beyond Erie Canal Harbor Station to the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western terminal.

Questions cloud the future of any expansion, since nobody knows how much money Congress will appropriate.

But the NFTA remains buoyed by what it is hearing. It will conduct public workshops on the current study this fall before issuing a report in December. If all goes according to plan, the authority will then seek more funds to study the critical questions of environmental impact, how much an expansion would cost, and who would pay for it.

The authority’s optimism stems from the problems of growing suburban congestion, the need to connect a far-flung university system, and projections of 17,500 people eventually working at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus without 17,500 places to park.

And although suburban residents resisted expansion in the 1970s and 1980s as denigrating to “gracious neighborhoods” and because of racial fears stemming from links to the city, most of that opposition seems to have dissipated.

“The world has changed a lot since we last looked at this,” Minkel said. “More people would leave their vehicles behind now if they could hop on a bus or train.”

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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