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Minkel to boost 'green' at NFTA ; First female head of region's transit authority wants public to 'leave automobiles behind'

The first woman to head the region's public transit system said her environmental background will spur her to make the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority a force in promoting green initiatives.

One key goal will involve getting more people to use public transit so they can "leave automobiles behind," said Kimberley A. Minkel.

"Smart growth for cities is an area that we'll probably want to take a look at -- how to green things up. Coming from environmental health and safety, you know that's going to be my push going forward," Minkel said.

The Lancaster resident, 45, was unanimously appointed the NFTA's executive director Tuesday during a special meeting of the board of commissioners.

In accepting the $170,000-a-year job, Minkel will play a key role in helping to shape the region's transportation agenda. The issues may include deciding whether the NFTA should revisit earlier plans to extend the Metro Rail line into the suburbs. Other discussions will focus on the authority's vast waterfront land holdings and whether key parcels should be turned over to waterfront planners.

Meanwhile, the new transit chief identified funding as the top challenge facing the NFTA.

More than 50 candidates were considered for the high-profile post that Lawrence K. Meckler has held for a dozen years. Meckler is retiring Friday.

Minkel joined the authority in 2002 after spending more than 12 years in the private sector. She has been responsible for monitoring health, safety and environmental quality issues at the NFTA.

She earned a bachelor's degree from Niagara University in 1988 and an MBA in concentration management from Canisius College in 1995. During her years in the private sector, Minkel worked for Xerox Corp., Sevenson Environmental Services and Washington Mills Electro Minerals Corp.

Meckler is ending a 34-year career at the NFTA. As executive director, he was making $193,136 annually.

In recent days, commissioners narrowed the field of candidates to Minkel and William R. Vanecek, the NFTA's aviation director, who has managed operations at the Buffalo Niagara and Niagara Falls international airports.

A "brain drain" within the authority spurred commissioners to consider candidates who had a wealth of knowledge about the agency, said acting NFTA board Chairman Henry M. Sloma.

"We needed someone who understood all the various dimensions of our business," Sloma told The Buffalo News after Tuesday's brief meeting.

Meckler isn't the only top transportation official who is retiring Friday. Two other top NFTA mangers, General Counsel David M. Gregory and Surface Transportation Director Walter D. Zmuda, also are ending long careers at the authority. The three collectively have 97 years of experience running the region's largest transportation system.

NFTA Commissioner Kevin J. Helfer said he believes Minkel will be an excellent executive director.

"Her passion is unbelievable. She has fire in the belly and a lot of creative ideas. She's got it all," said Helfer, who also serves as Buffalo's parking commissioner.

How would Minkel characterize the region's current transit infrastructure?

"The quality is excellent," she said. "Moving forward, can we improve? Absolutely."

Minkel said it's premature to discuss specific changes that might be considered, especially in light of the fact that Metro Bus service was recently restructured.

What about the three-decade-long debate about whether the Metro Rail line that snakes along Main Street should be extended into the suburbs?

"I think that's an area that would have to be looked at and studied to see if that makes sense," she replied.

Minkel was also asked about the NFTA's substantial land holdings on the waterfront. When will the land along the outer harbor be redeveloped?

"That's something we're working on now. We're taking a look at [it]. We need to remember that there are environmental issues with much of that property," she responded.

Could some of the land be turned over to other entities that are working on shoreline development?

"We're reviewing all options," she said.

Minkel described her management style as "participative," adding that she believes it's important to empower NFTA employees to share their ideas for improving operations.

"There are tremendous ideas out there within the organization, and I want to hear all of them."

If forced to prioritize, which mode of transportation would Minkel place at the top of the transit totem pole? Bus and rail service? Airport operations?

"It's like asking me to pick which child is my favorite," she said. "How do you pick one over the other? Aviation is a huge economic driver to the region. It's very important. And [public] transportation is something that so many people rely on every day. They're both very important."

Minkel is married to Mark Shepard and is the mother of two, Jacob, 14, and Allison, 8.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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