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Study on Buffalo-to-Amherst transit extension hits delay

Consultants have been studying since 2013 how and where to upgrade public transit between Buffalo and Amherst, and were slated to complete their task in January. But they haven’t. And they won’t finish anytime soon.

The experts need more time to analyze the cost of extending Metro Rail to Amherst or establishing enhanced bus service, according to Kimberley A. Minkel, executive director of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. As a result, the study will be delayed until “late summer.”

“We’re a little behind schedule,” Minkel said. “The consultants have to share a lot of information in a way that makes sense and is not all engineering jargon. We’ve asked them to simplify.”

When the study is finally completed, NFTA planners will recommend either a rail or bus mode, including specific routes. More studies will then determine costs and environmental ramifications, though Minkel said extending the current study into the summer will allow for earlier answers to some questions.

The authority 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, a continuing desire for service to new downtown facilities, and the need to link various University at Buffalo campuses.

Options stemming from the $1.5 million federally funded study 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. The 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 North.

• “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 recently debuted on Niagara Street in Buffalo – is another alternative.

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

Minkel said the authority’s consultants need to compare “apples to apples” in the study. While running enhanced bus service in the Buffalo to Amherst corridor would be far less expensive than rail, for example, she said the more frequent need to replace buses should be weighed against rail cars expected to last for decades.

“We have to consider those life cycle costs,” she said.

The extended study time will also allow for an $873,000 “transit oriented development” assessment by the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council, the local planning agency. It will include environmental data eventually required by the federal government, and will also determine the economic development benefits that could help justify the extension.

“One of the questions to be answered is 'How do we pay for this?’ ” Minkel said. “The transit-oriented development part helps develop some of the economics as to possible ways.”

She added the Federal Transit Administration will pay 80 percent of the additional study costs, with 10 percent contributed by the state Department of Transportation and 10 percent by the NFTA.