Planning a major infrastructure project like the Metro Rail extension to Amherst isn't like painting a house, but it does provide a useful analogy.
Just as a painter starts with the broad strokes of a sprayer, followed by a roller and, finally, a small brush, details on the proposed $1.2 billion extension to the University at Buffalo North Campus will become finer in each stage of the planning process, said Rachel Maloney Joyner, a transportation planner at the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.
"We're probably at the point where we're using a roller," she said. "At some point in the study when we get into final design, we're going to get out that little paint brush and we're going to start doing the trim."
The NFTA's preference is to continue Metro Rail underground from the University at Buffalo South Campus north on Bailey Avenue to Eggert Road behind the Northtown Plaza. There, trains would emerge to street level and turn right to go north on Niagara Falls Boulevard. Trains would then turn right onto Maple Road, left on Sweet Home Road and right on Rensch Road to enter the University at Buffalo North Campus.
The extension would effectively double Metro Rail's current 6.4 miles, and allow riders to travel between the two campuses in 17 minutes. The two campuses are connected now only by shuttle bus.
"They can eliminate all those buses," said Doug Funke, president of Citizens for Regional Transit. "Plus it'll service Niagara Falls Boulevard, Tonawanda and Amherst residents and get some traffic off the roads. You'll be able to get downtown from Amherst, which was always the original plan."
Officials believe that route is ripe for "transit-oriented" economic investment and development. The Boulevard Mall is for sale and could become a mixed-use property of retail and commercial, Joyner said Tuesday during an update on the extension hosted by Citizens for Regional Transit.
"There's potential to attract new investment there," she said. "Northtown Plaza is currently under transformation."
Metro Rail is projected to carry 45,000 daily riders by 2035, up from its current 20,000 daily ridership. If the long-discussed extension is built, riders could reach Canalside from Maple Road in about 30 minutes.
"We really think it can be the engine behind economic development," she said.
Transforming the Niagara Falls Boulevard corridor with mass transit is welcomed by Amherst Planning Director Eric Gillert and Town of Tonawanda Supervisor Joseph H. Emminger, both of whom addressed the crowd of about 30 people on Tuesday.
Gillert suggested the towns create a more formal entity to jointly ensure that zoning codes are consistent across both sides of Niagara Falls Boulevard, which forms their border.
"I think it's absolutely essential for the numbers that Rachel has been talking about to come to fruition," Gillert said during a panel discussion.
Emminger agreed with the need to align zoning codes. However, he wasn't completely sold on the light rail proposal and pushed for consideration of a bus rapid transit system on the boulevard instead.
"We think it's the best alternative for the Town of Tonawanda certainly, and actually for the Town of Amherst," he said. "We think it's less costly and will allow us to be more flexible going forward 10 years from now when who knows what we're going to be facing."
The next step for a rail extension is to begin the state and federal environmental review process. The state contributed $5 million through the Buffalo Billion II package for the review, which will take approximately 18 months.
"We anticipate that will begin this summer," Joyner said.
Officials are also moving forward under the assumption that the project will receive $600 million from the federal government, although that was recently thrown into doubt by President Trump's budget.
As part of the environmental review, planners have also agreed to take another look at having trains travel on a much longer stretch of Niagara Falls Boulevard instead of using Bailey and Eggert.
"We're going to relook at that as we move forward," Joyner said.
Then, out comes the small paint brush.
"All said and done, we anticipate this is about a 10-year project," she said. "We anticipate that service could begin in 2027."
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