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SWIST STEPPING DOWN AS NFTA CHIEF

Richard T. Swist, executive director of the NFTA, will resign after a seven-year tenure during which the agency cut Metro operations and raised fares and opened a new airport terminal.

Swist said Monday he is leaving his $110,000 post without a new job but is optimistic another place in public leadership will open to match his previous executive stints in county government and the Erie County Industrial Development Agency.

"I'm a seven-year-itch person," he said. "I really have the feeling it's time to move on."

A severance package that calls for him to receive six months' salary plus accrued vacation time also is expected to soothe his departure, planned for late January.

Lawrence M. Meckler, the top Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority lawyer, will succeed Swist on an interim basis. Meckler, a 20-year agency veteran who managed the last phase of Metro Rail construction before becoming chief counsel in 1991, said he would apply for the permanent job.

"Rick's done a good job," said Meckler, who is also vice chairman of the Peace Bridge Authority. "The NFTA is doing good things for the community and we'd like to do more for Western New York. I would like to be considered for the full-time position."

The authority is planning a national search for a new executive, but NFTA Chairman Robert D. Gioia said Meckler would be a "strong candidate." Gioia, however, also is leaving the NFTA next month.

Commissioner Luiz Kahl is expected to take over as chairman. Swist said Kahl asked him to remain, but he had been considering leaving the position for the past several months. Kahl could not be reached to comment.

"I'm not being forced, I'm doing this willingly and of my own volition," Swist said. "The timing is what it is."

Reports that Swist was contemplating leaving had been circulating for months, and the outgoing executive confirmed he had become increasingly restless. He said it would have been difficult for him to look for a job in Western New York while remaining in the position.

"I don't know where I'm going, but I have confidence it will be in a leadership position in this community," he said. "Lightning has struck twice for me before. I'm going to kick up a few thunderstorms to see if I can make it happen again."

Prior to the NFTA, Swist, 48, served for seven years as executive director of the ECIDA. Before that, he was a senior executive assistant to former County Executive Edward Regan.

Swist came to the NFTA in September 1990, five months after the authority was forced to close its Metro system for two days because of a funding crisis. His major task was to bring fiscal stability to the system at a time when the federal government was ending its operating aid.

In 1995, the NFTA raised fares 15 cents to $1.25 and cut 17 percent of its Metro system, a move that affected 3,000, mostly suburban riders. The authority also laid off 50 employees in its effort to reach a target of a $65 million Metro budget.

While Metro was being overhauled, the NFTA also was embarking on a $187 million airport project that culminated last month with the opening of a new terminal. The agency also began trying to improve air service in response to critics who said it had been complacent about its decline.

Richard M. Tobe, county commissioner of environment and planning, said Swist has done an excellent job leading the NFTA.

"He's brought a level of professionalism and fiscal stability to an organization that was badly in need of it," Tobe said. "Thanks to his management, we've been able to avoid a funding crisis at the NFTA."

Swist's departure comes at a time when the NFTA is pursuing an ambitious expansion concept called Hublink, which would create a metropolitan-wide system, coordinating the jumble of transportation providers with Metro.

Advocates say attracting more riders through Hublink is the only way Metro can avoid further route cuts and fare increases.

"When I look at Hublink, the air service issue and the change in (board) leadership, I really get the feeling it's time to move on," Swist said.

Swist will spend his last weeks completing his proposed budget, which will be presented to the NFTA board in February.

Gioia, the departing chairman, had been on the job only nine months when Swist was selected to replace Alfred H. Savage.

"He's done a great job in bringing us from the challenges that faced us in 1990 to where we are today," Gioia said. "A great portion of that success rests on his shoulders. It's with a deep sense of regret that we accept Rick's resignation."

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