Most of us can agree that the 6.4-mile Metro Rail from the heart of a resurgent downtown to the University at Buffalo’s South campus is an underutilized asset; it is aging and deteriorating. The short distance is laughable compared to other cities’ rail transportation.
But all of that can change – will change, if proponents of Metro Rail extension have their way. For that to happen, everyone must be on board. The entire community and, more important, the elected officials whose job it is to procure money to invest in their community.
So it is with great concern that one highly respected congressman, Brian Higgins, a couple of months ago reiterated his changed support for expanding Metro Rail to Amherst. He now opposes the plan.
However, New York State, Erie County, the University at Buffalo and business groups are all in agreement that the $1.2 billion proposal to extend light rail to UB’s North Campus and beyond would usefully link the city and the suburbs.
Higgins believes the project will eventually cost more, possibly $2 billion. And he believes activity will increase in the downtown corridor between the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and new hoped-for development at the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad Terminal at the foot of Main Street.
His position is supported by transit experts such as Lawrence W. Penner, who before his recent retirement, reviewed NFTA projects during a 31-year career and doubts projections that service to Amherst could begin by 2028. He also agrees that the final cost will be $2 billion or more.
But not extending the Metro Rail at a time when Buffalo is beginning to re-emerge from a decades-long slumber would count as another missed opportunity. Buffalo has had more than enough of those. And Washington has money specifically for such a project. Why wouldn’t we go after it?
A $1 million study supporting the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority’s application to the Federal Transit Administrations “New Starts” program estimated $1.7 billion in development along the entire route from downtown to Amherst. It also predicted an increase in daily ridership to about 45,000 trips from 20,000, plus a $310 million increase in nearby property values, raising tax revenues 32 percent for Buffalo and Amherst.
The area within one-half mile to one mile of the proposed corridor contains nearly 20 percent – or more than 100,000 – of the region’s total jobs, and 25 percent of the region’s office, health care, education and government jobs. Connecting Amherst, UB and downtown would create impact and, for those who do not own cars, economic opportunity.
The vintage light rail system, put into service in 1984, is one of several that were established in cities across the country at the same time. Unlike its peers, such as Portland, Ore., Buffalo’s Metro Rail has never been extended.
Moreover, the federal government requires an excruciatingly thorough multiyear study, or “Alternatives Analysis,” which recommended the extension to Amherst and UB North. Years of rigorous analysis went into examining all the alternatives and making a recommendation based on economic impact and community input.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion II includes funds to implement the environmental impact study, which is required by the federal government to justify proceeding with next steps. Higgins supports that study.
The most significant economic driver and anchor institution is the university, now with three campuses – North, South and the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences in downtown Buffalo. Making a seamless and rapid connection for the whole population along this corridor between downtown Buffalo and Amherst opens they way to a huge economic impact for the region and helps to redress some of the planning mistakes of the past.
Those points alone make it worth pressing forward.