Just weeks before Walmart opens on Walden Avenue in Cheektowaga, neither the retail giant nor the local transit agency knows whether Metro Bus will be able to directly serve the new store.
Walmart says it remains open to allowing direct access to the store, set to open on April 6, but over the last six months, the Bentonville, Ark., company has failed to respond to the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. Only after The Buffalo News sought clarification of the situation for the second time in two weeks has Walmart seemed ready for negotiations on what remains a touchy subject with the NFTA.
That’s because the situation is reopening old wounds that still plague the transit agency after a young inner-city woman was killed stepping off a Metro Bus on Walden Avenue in late 1995.
Charges of racism ensued after Walden Galleria officials were forced to reassess their prohibition against public bus access. And the Galleria’s parent company eventually faced millions of dollars in penalties stemming from a lawsuit that gained national attention.
Twenty years later, NFTA officials are once again dealing with what appears as at least corporate indifference to allowing access at the soon-to-be-opened Walmart – this one also on Walden Avenue just east of the Galleria.
Six months after the NFTA asked Walmart for permission to serve its new store, and two days after Metro beefed up its Walden Avenue route in anticipation of a surge in ridership, the authority only began addressing the situation on Tuesday following News inquiries.
“We are open to the idea of bus access to the store,” Walmart spokesman Phillip Keene said late Tuesday. “We plan to connect with the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority very soon to discuss what might be possible.”
But the situation is stirring up old – and unpleasant – memories. Nobody is leveling racism charges, but the NFTA remains concerned about safety after struggling through the 1995 death of Cynthia Wiggins, a 17-year-old mother working in the Walden Galleria food court. She was crushed by a dump truck after attempting to cross seven lanes of traffic from the bus stop where she was forced to start her walk to the mall.
“In direct relation to our effort to provide our customers with the safest and best service possible, we have reached out numerous times to open dialogue about gaining permission for Metro to access their property,” said NFTA spokesman C. Douglas Hartmayer. “We have never received a return phone call.”
Hartmayer would not address whether a situation similar to the Wiggins case – in which store operators allegedly frowned on traffic from inner-city locations – was behind Walmart’s failure to address the situation. But he also said the NFTA has never forgotten the teenager’s death.
“Certainly, we are all aware of that unfortunate set of circumstances,” he said. “That’s why we stress providing the safest service we can to our customers.”
In the meantime, Metro Bus has strengthened service on its No. 46 route serving the new store along Walden Avenue, which directly connects to Buffalo’s East Side. Hartmayer said a significant increase in passenger totals is anticipated exclusively because of the new Walmart, and that’s why 12 trips have been added on Saturday and 11 on Sunday – up from zero trips on those days. Weekday service has been increased from 13 to 17 trips daily.
“We knew this would become a popular destination for employment and general commerce,” he said.
Hartmayer explained that Metro does not always directly serve Walmart properties, pointing to access at the Niagara Falls store and no access at Sheridan Drive in Amherst.
He noted that on Sheridan, however, several traffic lights just east of North Bailey Avenue and others in the area slow down traffic. He also noted that a light is expected to govern traffic entering and exiting the new Walden Avenue Walmart, but that its exact location has not yet been determined. As a result, neither have the planned new outbound and inbound Metro stops.
“Our desire would be to have access to the property,” Hartmayer said. “No doubt about that.
“Hopefully, they will call us back and initiate a conversation that will have a positive outcome that allows us access to that property,” he added.
Wiggins’ son, Taquilo Castellanos, was an infant when his mother was killed attempting to cross Walden Avenue. A State Supreme Court jury awarded the boy a $2.55 million settlement in 1999. The defendants, which included the owners of the mall, never admitted liability.