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UNCERTAINTY OVER FUNDING PLAGUES PANEL ON ROADS, RAILS

The Niagara Frontier Transportation Committee, the interagency unit that recommends road and rail policies for Erie and Niagara counties, Friday was confronted with planning uncertainties when it met in the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library for its biannual meeting.

Nancy J. Ross, a state Department of Transportation analyst, said that federal funding for New York's highway projects cannot be known until Congress agrees on separate Senate and House bills. Those bills suggest that New York in 1998 and possibly for the following five years may get from $1.1 billion, the amount it got this year, to $1.4 billion, once the legislative process is completed. The money comes from the federal gasoline tax motorists pay.

The current Interstate Surface Transportation Act authorizing the distribution expires Tuesday with no prospect that Congress can enact a new bill before then. "The fat lady not only has not begun to sing, but she hasn't even decided what songs to sing," Ms. Ross said.

In another transportation issue vital to New York and the Niagara Frontier, James A. Utermark, a freight and economic specialist for the state DOT, said that negotiations on how the Norfolk & Southern and CSX railroads will divide the former Conrail Railroad also are unsettled.

He called the pending change "historic" for New York with service, jobs, competition and investment all at stake. Western New York is interested in rail access to Buffalo from both domestic and Canadian railroads and the possible purchase of the Buffalo & Pittsburgh tracks and right of way that has been described as vital to the region's future.

"The Federal Surface Transportation Board, which will make the decisions, must wade through 15,000 pages of presentations," he said. "That's more than the 9,600 pages of the federal tax code. The final decision is due next June.

"There is opportunity and danger for New York. The opportunity for shippers and receivers is that they can have transportation choices and competition, but the danger is that if we take the split as it is now, New York is not going to get as much as we think we can."

A Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority spokesman said that a study is under way of fare collection technology and fare setting to increase NFTA revenues and work with other transport operators.

Interim Director Donald J. Smith said that staffers have updated the Transportation Committee's planning for the year 2010 and that regionalism should be factored into the planning, already under way, for the year 2020.

In the meeting's public portion, Grace Gifford of Eggertsville, a member of the Citizens Rapid Transit Committee, urged Transportation Committee members to study a report that holds that additional light rail facilities is the best way to expand NFTA ridership. "Over and over, commuters tell us that they will not get out of their cars to ride a bus, but that they will to ride a train."

Gordon J. Thompson, an urban transportation planner, suggested that the Transportation Committee add to its long-range light rail (Metro) planning projects like branches to North Buffalo, Hamburg and Orchard Park, a downtown Niagara Falls shuttle and corridors to the Buffalo Airport, Niagara River and a Tonawanda turnout that would link the City of Tonawanda with downtown Buffalo.

A third speaker asked the Transportation Committee to recommend planning and road striping as an easy way to improve traffic and safety while assisting the growing number of bicyclists.

In a pro-forma action, state Transportation Commissioner John Boardman was re-elected Transportation Committee chairman and Niagara Falls Mayor Joseph Galli was re-elected vice chairman.

Robert Russell, chief of the state DOT's Buffalo office, conducted the meeting.

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