With 13 months left in office, Gov. George E. Pataki will soon make one of his most important decisions regarding the future of Western New York: Who will chair the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.
Few organizations, if any, are more influential in this region than the NFTA, both in everyday life and in big-picture economic prospects. From moving people daily on buses and trains, to dramatically improving the economics of air travel, to developing Buffalo's long-neglected waterfront, the NFTA has responsibilities -- and some notable successes -- that make an irrefutable case for its importance. So do these numbers, from the 2004-05 fiscal year: With a budget of $125.5 million, the NFTA employs 1,512 people. Some 23.5 million riders use its buses and trains. It owns 120 acres of waterfront land, and in 1997, opened a new $187 million air terminal.
For the past seven years, Luiz F. Kahl, former president of Carborundum Corp, led the board effectively. Under his chairmanship, the NFTA improved its efficiency and its financial stability. Owning hundreds of acres of waterfront land (it was once a port authority), the NFTA also influences development there.
Kahl himself succeeded another effective chairman, Robert D. Gioia, who led building the new terminal at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport. That success was crucial to attracting two low-cost airlines, Southwest and JetBlue. With the addition of those carriers, Buffalo morphed from one of the nation's most expensive cities for air travel to one of its cheapest.
Kahl died last month at 68, following complications from cancer treatment. His family's and friends' personal loss is also the community's. His leadership made a difference to Western New York, and it is now up to Pataki to ensure that whoever he selects as the authority's next chairman has the skills to continue the strong work done by Kahl and Gioia.
That won't be easy. Beyond the responsibilities of the job, which are challenging enough, is the fact that the authority's board members, including its chairman, serve without pay. Pataki needs to find a talented, driving visionary with the time and wallet to make that kind of commitment.