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PROSPECTS DIM FOR EXTENSION OF METRO RAIL LINE

Buffalo's 6.4-mile light-rail transit line won't be growing any time soon, if ever.

None of four proposed extensions of the line meets federal transportation criteria for funding, according to a study commissioned by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority to assess the cost-effectiveness of extending the 16-year-old line.

"The bottom line is, we'd be putting good money after bad," said NFTA Chairman Luiz R. Kahl. "It's a tough decision, and we know we're going to be criticized, but we can only do what we can afford to do, and we can't justify spending the kind of money it will take to extend the line."

With cost estimates for four proposed extensions ranging from $445.1 million to $584.5 million, the NFTA says it would have to find at least $222 million in local funds to make a serious pitch to federal transportation officials.

Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra and Buffalo Mayor Anthony M. Masiello have expressed no interest in contributing any local dollars to a rail-extension effort, according to Kahl.

New corridors to Amherst, the Southtowns, Tonawanda/Niagara Falls and Buffalo Niagara International Airport were reviewed using the government's rating system, with the conclusion that only an airport line had any hope of passing muster with the agency, and even its scores were extremely low.

"When you look at all the factors -- the costs, potential ridership, chances for local funding, and all the rest -- we'd have no credibility in making a request to the feds. We can't justify it," said NFTA Executive Director Lawrence M. Meckler.

When the Metro Rail system was built in the mid-1980s, the federal government picked up 80 percent of the costs, with the state chipping in the balance of construction costs. The U.S. Department of Transportation has totally overhauled its procedures for evaluating and funding light-rail start-ups and extensions, requiring, among other things, that localities pick up 50 percent of the tab for construction.

The study, conducted by Parsons Brinkerhoff, Quade & Douglas of New York, used the recently implemented federal cost-effectiveness criteria to evaluate four potential extention routes.

Despite the resulting moratorium on rail extension, Kahl called the situation "dynamic" and subject to change, especially if the local population increases or major new employment trends takes place.

"This isn't the final word on this. We'll revisit this in another five to 10 years as part of our overall transit strategy, and who knows? Things change," Kahl said.

The NFTA's report is bad news for E. Edward Deutschman, chairman of the Citizens Regional Transit Corp., a group that advocates extending the Metro Rail line. Deutschman questioned the study's findings, particularly the price tags placed on the various extension options.

"Those cost estimates are hard to believe," Deutschman said. "Parsons Brinkerhoff is known for going for the biggest bucks on construction. Their involvement led to a lot of needless expenses on the existing line, so I'm not all that surprised."

The citizens group will continue with its effort to rally support for expansion of rail service, according to Deutschman, with focus on the airport option.

"We'll keep the pot boiling," Deutschman said. "That is a corridor that makes so much sense. We see a lot of potential in reaching out to riders in Cheektowaga, Lancaster and even Clarence."

Deutschman said other studies found that taking the rail system to that area would not only provide a convenient new way to reach the airport, but could attract about 16,000 new daily riders to the system.

While the NFTA has taken extension plans off the track for the near future, its money problems related to the light-rail system have not been solved. The study says the line is reaching "midlife" and is in need of upgrades to everything from rail cars to tracks, improvements and replacements that will increase the cost of operating and maintaining the line to more than $1 billion in the next decade.

The growing costs of operating the rather limited rail system raise the potential that it could be shut down and mothballed sometime in the future.

"If things don't change for the better, if ridership slips further as our costs increase, we may decide to just shut it down," Kahl said. "But for now, we're committed to running it and making it the best light-rail system it can be."

As light-rail systems go, Buffalo's Metro Rail line compares favorably with its peers, according to the study. With about 25,000 riders per day, the system has the country's third-highest number of passenger trips per mile, out of 17 light-rail systems now operating in the nation.

The review also found that compared with other systems, Metro Rail is at the average in local funding, and uses the funds about as efficiently as other systems.

e-mail: slinstedt@buffnews.com

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