Citing safety considerations, Walmart late Friday said it will prohibit direct Metro Bus access to its new Cheektowaga store following a request initiated six months ago by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.
Large public transit buses cannot safely operate in the Walden Avenue store’s parking lot and driveways, said spokesman Phillip Keene. That means public transit shoppers will be discharged at new bus stops on Walden Avenue, where a traffic light will regulate pedestrian traffic.
“The bottom line is that it would be unsafe for us to allow access for buses to the parking lot,” Keene said. “If we were to do it, we would have had to plan at the beginning (of the design process). That was not done at the time.
“There is no way we will put someone in danger when a bus can’t turn safely,” he added.
The Buffalo News reported earlier this week that NFTA officials have unsuccessfully attempted since September to gain any response from Walmart regarding their request for a bus shelter at the new store – slated to open on April 20. Keene said Wednesday that inadvertent miscommunication prevented a response, and that the retail giant would consider the NFTA request.
It returned with its decision not to allow access on Friday.
NFTA officials said they remain mindful of a fatal 1995 accident outside the nearby Walden Galleria that claimed the life of a teenage mother attempting to cross Walden Avenue to her job in the mall’s food court. It was alleged at the time that mall officials had banned buses arriving from the city’s East Side from discharging passengers on the property.
In the meantime, Buffalo Common Council President Darius G. Pridgen Friday wrote Walmart store manager Richard Cooper urging a bus stop on the Walmart property.
“My office has been contacted by several Buffalo residents who are concerned about public transportation to the new site,” Pridgen said in his letter. “I am respectfully writing to you today to ask for a quick and fair solution as to the placement of a bus shelter and allowance for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority to operate directly on the property.
“Anything less is not acceptable,” he added.
On Friday, the authority said it still hopes to persuade Walmart to accept its suggestion for an on-site bus shelter, possibly similar to its accommodations at the Niagara Falls store. (The Walmart on Sheridan Drive in Amherst is served by an adjacent bus stop).
“Our wish is that we still have access to the property for the safety of all concerned,” said NFTA spokesman C. Douglas Hartmayer.
He added that supervisors have not yet visited the property to determine what is necessary to accommodate Metro buses, but they soon will.
“It’s important we have an open dialogue to see where we can both get to, meeting the needs of our customers and their customers,” Hartmayer said.
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.
Keene said on Friday that Walmart cooperated with the NFTA as far back as 2014 in planning for a westbound bus stop on Walden by paying for its concrete pad and benches, while the authority explored securing grant money for the actual shelter.
A new eastbound bus stop also has been constructed, with Keene indicating the presence of a stop light and crosswalk was deemed sufficient for the safety of passengers arriving or departing from the store.
He said Walmart’s sponsorship of at least partial construction of the Walden Avenue stop demonstrated its commitment to working with the NFTA to safely accommodate Metro passengers.
“There’s a functioning bus stop on the Walmart side of the road and passengers can walk up to the store once it opens,” he said, adding that installation of a new traffic light constituted part of the approval process for the new store.
“We’ve done everything everyone has asked us to do and on time,” Keene said, adding that the company participated only in building the westbound stop directly in front of the store.
“That would be our purview,” he said.
Keene also emphasized on Friday that any planning for bus accommodations should have been addressed during the initial store design phase that began in 2014.
The NFTA was found partially responsible in a 1999 trial for the 1995 death of Cynthia Wiggins at the Walden Galleria site. Hartmayer acknowledged earlier this week that officials remain mindful of the tragedy.
“Certainly, we are all aware of that unfortunate set of circumstances,” he said Tuesday. “That’s why we stress providing the safest service we can to our customers.”
Charges of racism ensued after the Wiggins death when 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.
Keene emphasized Friday that Walmart’s denial of bus access stems only from safety considerations.
“The store opens on April 20 and we want as many customers as possible to come and check it out,” he said. “We welcome everybody.”