Almost 70,000 riders have used the free Discover Niagara Shuttle during its first two years of operation, connecting to more than a dozen stops between downtown Niagara Falls and Old Fort Niagara in Youngstown, officials said Monday.
Old Fort Niagara benefits the most from the shuttle service, with 60 percent of the riders stopping at the historical site. Half of the riders used the shuttle to get to the Maid of the Mist. About a third of the riders went to Village of Lewiston and about one of every four riders visited the Aquarium of Niagara.
The executive director of the agency operating the shuttle urged all levels of government to commit to enough funding to keep the bus rolling in 2018.
The service has an $800,000 annual budget and only $515,000 lined up in funding for next year, said Sara Capen of the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area, a federally designated agency.
Supporters of the shuttle pointed to a study that claimed a $35 million economic impact from the Discover Niagara Shuttle. The economic impact study by Tripp Umbach, a Pittsburgh consulting firm, calculated the estimated $35 million impact by extrapolating the spending reported by survey respondents.
"The folks at the destinations, they are the ones who really benefitting from this," said State Sen. Robert G. Ortt, R-North Tonawanda.
Reps. Chris Collins and Brian Higgins made supportive statements about the shuttle at a news conference Monday at Niagara University's Castellani Art Museum, but neither promised federal funding.
"This is a great day, recognizing the accomplishments of this initiative, and we will look for more announcements that are even more exciting moving forward," Higgins said.
Capen said she expects her agency to be cut out of the Trump administration's upcoming budget. She said that happened this year, but Congress restored the Heritage Area funding.
Lined up as shuttle donors for 2018 are the New York Power Authority, $250,000; State Parks, $200,000; Destination Niagara USA, the Niagara County tourism promotion agency, $50,000; and Niagara University, $15,000.
NU is one of the shuttle stops, Thomas Chambers, a history professor, serves as chairman of the Heritage Area board.
He said the shuttle has proven it contributes to more tourist spending and longer stays in the region.
In 2017, the City of Niagara Falls gave $100,000 from its hotel and motel bed tax receipts, and the Town of Lewiston gave $50,000 from its Niagara River Greenway allocation.
During the 2016-17 pilot period, the State Legislature allocated $100,000.
"This is something we're going to have to look to continue," Ortt said.
Mayor Paul A. Dyster said he will ask the Niagara Falls City Council to make a bed tax allocation next year. Lewiston Supervisor Steve Broderick said if the town does so, the payment again would come from Greenway funds.
"Residents here use that shuttle even to get to work," Collins said.
A survey of 310 riders this summer showed 11 percent were locals.
Capen said the Niagara County Legislature has not funded the shuttle.
"We're looking for them to support the initiative as well," she said.
USA Niagara Development Corp., the state economic development agency headquartered in Niagara Falls, gave $120,000 to the shuttle in 2016 but made no payment this year.