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NFTA SHOULD GET ANSWERS BEFORE DECIDING FATE OF LAND APPRAISAL OF WATERFRONT PARCEL IS FIRST STEP

ON THE SURFACE at least, the proposal that the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority look into selling its waterfront property to the state seems like an ideal solution to at least two vexing problems.

First, such a sale could give the financially starved transit agency an immediate cash infusion to help it fulfill its transportation mission.

Second, it would take the NFTA out of the waterfront development business. That could mean one less obstructionist for the Horizons Waterfront Commission to deal with as it tries to produce and implement a waterfront master plan.

For those concerned both about the continued viability of the area's public transportation system and about the best use of prime waterfront acreage, such a scenario seems perfect.

Whether it can come to pass is another question -- and one that the NFTA should start answering now.

The first step should be to follow up on Commissioner Glenn Hackett's proposal to find out how much the NFTA waterfront property is worth.

Hackett argues -- and some people agree -- that the NFTA has strayed too far from its transportation mission by allowing the land to be used for ventures like Shooters restaurant and a lakefront Tops Markets warehouse.

Others at the authority, however, make a compelling argument when they talk of holding the land and reaping lease income until the parcels increase in value, then using the windfall from a future sale to help fund an extension of Metro Rail. That is what the authority's master plan calls for.

It is impossible to say which alternative makes the most sense until several questions are answered. Not the least of them is how much the authority can get for the land right now.

As Hackett notes, Gov. Cuomo is proposing an environmental bond issue, and the NFTA should at least explore the possibility of the state's buying the land with that fund and converting it into the city waterfront attraction that this area desperately needs.

As he says, if the NFTA can get only a relative pittance for the land now, it might make more sense to hold onto it until it appreciates -- unless another funding option can be found. But if the authority can already reap something approaching the $75 million administrators think would be needed to seek state and federal matching funds for a Metro Rail extension, waiting might not be the best thing to do in terms of the region's overall needs.

Another question concerns whether the authority could sell the land to the state without putting it up for the highest bid. If someone other than the state were to buy the land, the same concerns about how the land would be used -- concerns already expressed about the NFTA's current use of it -- would arise. That is another issue that would have to be explored.

But the first step is having the land appraised so that commissioners and the public know exactly what's at stake in weighing the competing interests.

The NFTA's funding needs -- both short-range and long-term -- are at issue, but so is the proper development of the waterfront. Neither should be sacrificed for the other.

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