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NFTA SHUTTLE TO AMHERST HITS BUMPY ROAD

Unknown to the 60 people who depend on the shuttle to get to and from work, the NYWest Express came close to being scrapped slast week.

The van service was touted as the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority's first test of Hublink -- an effort to bring mass transit to the suburbs. The program is safe for the next few weeks. But in the future, businesses whose employees use the service may have to pay for all or most of the cost.

The Amherst Industrial Development Agency, in conjunction with the NFTA, began running the NYWest Express in 1998 to take city residents to suburban office parks. After a trial period, the IDA intended to hand off the service to the transportation authority.

"The Amherst IDA is not in the transportation business," said James J. Allen, executive director. "We think this is a great idea, but we don't want to run it, and we never wanted to run it."

But the transportation authority could not take over the shuttle service as planned because of union issues, Allen said. Things became even more complicated because the two agencies had no written agreement, and both lost staff who crafted the original arrangement.

Still, with about 60 people depending on the service, the Amherst IDA continued running it -- despite the lack of funding.

We Care Transportation operated the vans and went without being paid for months, Allen said. However, when their tab reached $27,000 in mid-January, the company told the Amherst IDA that someone had to pay up or the shuttle service would have to be stopped. That caused the Amherst IDA to fire off a letter to the transportation authority.

". . . Despite the financial difficulties encountered in operating the NYWest Express," the letter states, ". . . NFTA has on numerous occasions asked that AIDA do whatever is necessary in order to avoid a cessation of the service, and made specific assurances that NFTA would provide all or substantially all of the funds necessary to support this service."

The Amherst IDA said it was only because of these assurances that it kept running the service for the last year and a half.

The transportation authority officials were reluctant to talk about how the problem arose because of ongoing negotiations with the union. They did say that they are working things out with the Amherst IDA officials -- including who will pay the $27,000 owed to We Care Transportation.

"We're on the same wave length going forward," said Lawrence M. Meckler, NFTA executive director.

Currently, the transportation authority gives the Amherst IDA $1,500 a month to run the shuttle service, which costs about $6,000 a month. In addition, the authority sold the industrial development agency two vans for $1 each.

But now it looks like local business will bear the brunt of the costs.

ICT Group Inc., a telemarketing center located on John James Audubon Parkway in Amherst, says that's no problem considering about 15 to 20 percent of its 300 employees use the service to get to work.

"It is very valuable to our employees," said Jack Egan, ICT's general manager. "We're more than willing to participate, but I don't want to end up running a bus service."

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