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Having commissioned a study that confirmed what many suspected -- it makes no fiscal sense to expand the light-rail transit system -- the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority is moving responsibly in exploring innovative alternatives to meet customer needs.

NFTA officials recently broke the news that their study found an extension would be too costly, ranging from $445.1 million to $584.85 million for four proposed extensions. Considering that about half of that cost would have to come from local governments that can barely afford the services they provide now, the reality is that this community simply can't afford to extend the line.

Expected or not, that's still disappointing. A line that stretched beyond the 6.4 miles into the suburbs would have benefited the community. But NFTA Chairman Luiz R. Kahl had it right when he said it would be putting good money after bad. It makes sense to curtail any plans, at this time, to extend the Metro Rail. Kahl did leave the door open for a future extension, acknowledging that things change.

In the meantime, the reality is that this community's mass transit needs will have to be met by buses. NFTA officials are already moving in that direction. Included in those plans is MetroLink, which uses smaller, 24-seat buses that are linked with fixed-route bus service. The NFTA also plans to evaluate express buses, schedule modifications, employment shuttles and community circulators to blend with the current light-rail system.

The light-rail system was built upon high expectations that were never met, from the anticipated expansion into the suburbs to the population figures that have dimmed over the years. And it's unlikely that the current 25,000 per-day passenger count is going to grow significantly.

In retrospect, this community never should have accepted a system that was reduced below what already was a bare minimum. The pedestrian mall, part of the light-rail system that took automobile traffic off Main Street, has been a convenient scapegoat for the troubles that would have afflicted downtown anyway. But if it wasn't responsible for downtown's decline, it's also true that the mall certainly didn't come close to providing the vitality many expected it to produce.

Meanwhile, Metro Rail continues to serve a purpose. In any event, it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to take it off line. And it would completely fail to provide a public service which, as much as 6.4 miles can, it does to some degree.

But now the debate can end for awhile. Our mass transit future lies with buses, not trains. Too bad, but that's the way it is.

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