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They run the buses, they run the transit line, and they run the airport. That means their job touches just about everyone. But now the "they" is changing as the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority goes through a major transition in leadership.

The era of the outgoing leaders is neatly bracketed by two events: the financial crisis that shut down the Metro bus and rail system for two days in April 1990 and the opening of a $187 million airline terminal last month. It's an indication of successful leadership that the second event is a much happier one than the first.

The 1990 crisis erupted only three months after Robert D. Gioia became NFTA chairman, succeeding Raymond Gallagher in January, and six months before Richard T. Swist took over from Alfred H. Savage as the agency's executive director in September 1990.

Now Gioia and Swist are leaving -- Gioia in a few days and Swist at the end of January.

The two departing leaders compiled a mixed record, but certainly one with more pluses than minuses.

Three solid accomplishments stand out: (1) stabilized NFTA finances, with a big helping hand from the Erie County Legislature, even as Washington cut deeply into NFTA operational assistance; (2) the proposed new Metro ground-transportation system called Hublink, and (3) construction of the new 15-gate terminal at the renamed Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

Problems remain. Fewer passengers are riding the buses and Metro Rail. Passenger use of the airport has declined. High air fares hit especially hard -- last year, Buffalo suffered from the second-highest fares in the country in hypothetical round-trips of 500 miles.

The NFTA's board -- the two leaders don't make the decisions alone -- slipped behind in marketing the airport to airlines, especially discount carriers, and the agency has never really caught up. Closing that gap must become a priority objective of the new NFTA leadership.

The new terminal crowns this passing NFTA era, yet a less visible achievement is the improved finances. Amid the 1990 crisis that interrupted bus and rail service, the County Legislature adopted a real-estate property transfer tax to raise transit funds. This was changed in the spring of 1994, when county lawmakers substituted a designated one-eighth of one percent of the county sales tax for the NFTA.

A year later the NFTA tightened its own operation, raising fares by 15 cents and shrinking the Metro system by 17 percent.

Today, Erie County provides the NFTA with $16 million or so in annual taxpayer subsidies. For next year, the sales-tax revenue will amount to $12.54 million of that total.

Richard M. Tobe, county commissioner of environment and planning, credits Swist with bringing "a level of professionalism and fiscal stability to an organization that was badly in need of it."

Commissioner Luiz F. Kahl, a former chief executive of the Carborundum Co. and member of the board of the Greater Buffalo Partnership, is expected to succeed Gioia. A decisive, hands-on leader, Kahl is a promising choice. He can be expected to move quickly and give greater prominence to business concerns -- such as marketing and recruitment at the airport.

Lawrence M. Meckler, the NFTA's top lawyer, who will serve as acting executive director when Swist leaves, has indicated interest in the post on a permanent basis. That's appropriate. It should not deter, however, the 11-member commission from also considering, as Kahl recommends, other possible candidates in an aggressive, nationwide search.

The same kind of search has been under way for permanent chiefs of two divisions recently reorganized by the NFTA, one responsible for ground transportation and the other for airports here and in Niagara Falls, which faces problems of its own that deserve creative attention.

Running basic transportation services is a tough job that isn't getting any easier as the community sprawls outward and regional competition intensifies nationwide. Professionalism and vision are required. Now it will be up to the new leaders to provide them.

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