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NFTA OKs $168.2 million budget that maintains current fares

The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority on Monday approved a $168.2 million budget for 2007-08 -- a spending plan that maintains current fares and service levels.

NFTA Chairman Gregory Stamm described the region's public transportation network as being in a "very positive cycle."

"Ridership is up, airport traffic is up, and we've got great plans for the Niagara Falls airport. I think the good health of our operations bodes well for the communities we serve and the region as a whole," Stamm said.

The NFTA chief said the board is very pleased to approve a budget that doesn't rely on fare boosts or route cuts.

"It sends a message to our riders that we care about them. We're going to do our best to maintain the services they count on," he said.

The 2007-08 budget totals 4 percent more than the current year's $162.3 million fiscal plan. Overall, the new budget assumes a 3.2 percent increase in revenue from NFTA operations and a 4.8 percent rise in local, state and federal operating assistance.

On the expense side, spending will be up 4.6 percent from this fiscal year, primarily tied to increases in health insurance and employee contract costs.

The NFTA's employee roster will grow to 1,555 full-time staffers, a net increase of 46 jobs. The employee gain is due in large part to a conversion of 58 part-time positions to full-time work.

The budget vote came nearly four months ahead of the start of the authority's fiscal year, which runs from April 1, 2007, through March 31, 2008. The early vote was required by recently enacted changes in New York State's public authorities regulations.

NFTA Executive Director Lawrence Meckler said the early deadline forced the transit agency to make a number of "assumptions" about revenue streams.

"The biggest assumption was related to state operating assistance," Meckler said, noting that the agency historically works from a governor's budget proposal that is released in January.

"What we did was use the four-year average, which is very conservative, and we feel comfortable with those numbers," he said.

That statistical average pegged state transit aid at $36.6 million, a 7.9 percent boost from the current budget year. That projection is more than 3 percent below the roughly 11 percent hike in state operating assistance the authority received this year.

The fiscal plan also includes projected increases in the other key revenue streams: Erie County sales tax, up 2.5 percent; county mortgage recording tax, up 3.3 percent; and airport passenger activity, up 3 percent. The budget also anticipates a 6.4 percent increase in Metro Bus and Rail fare collections due to improved ridership.

The NFTA's 2007-08 budget year also is expected to bring some high-profile capital improvement projects. At the top of that list is a new passenger terminal at Niagara Falls International Airport. That anticipated $27 million project hinges on securing another $14 million to move from the design phase to construction.

Buffalo Niagara International Airport will see an overhaul of its baggage sorting and screening system -- a $27.9 million project to be funded by passenger facility charges and Federal Aviation Administration aid.

The next fiscal year will also see completion of the $13.6 million Outer Harbor Greenbelt project. That effort, which includes public access and shoreline stabilization, is primarily funded through state Department of Environmental Conservation and Federal Highway Administration dollars.

e-mail: slinstedt@buffnews.com

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