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Trail or rail? NFTA, town strive for deal on using right of way; Finding compromise becomes complicated

As early as next year, Town of Tonawanda leaders envision a spectacular biking-hiking trail along its portion of an old railroad right of way running north from Kenmore Avenue.

But the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority has its own dream for the line it has owned for almost 30 years. It foresees the day when Metro Rail trains carry thousands of daily commuters along the 4.75-mile stretch to connect with the subway at LaSalle Station and then to downtown Buffalo.

Now transit and town officials are trying to find a way to complete both visions, though they all admit that will not be easy.

"Our mission is to preserve those corridors for possible expansion," said C. Douglas Hartmayer, NFTA spokesman. "At the same time we want to work with the communities to ensure the future of possible light rail expansion and get a bike path too."

Tonawanda Supervisor Anthony F. Caruana says he also likes the idea of hopping aboard Metro Rail in his town. But he is committed to taking advantage of about $2.1 million in federal funds that he believes would substantially enhance quality of life in the town.

"We have so many bikers, walkers and roller bladers -- it would just be an ideal situation because there is so much greenery through that area," he said.

In addition, he said City of Buffalo planners are interested in adding their portion of the right of way ending at LaSalle Station, with an overall goal of joining trails now expanding throughout the region.

The supervisor explained that he would readily agree to a 25-year lease that would allow the NFTA to take back the land if it succeeded in extending the Metro Rail. But after years of avoiding any talk of light rail expansion, the authority is resurrecting the idea of adding to the 6.5-mile system.

As a result, the board of commissioners last month directed management to settle for at least a 10-year agreement -- just in case.

"We're comfortable with a 10-year irrevocable lease followed by a 10-year extension unless we need it for a rail extension," explained David J. State, NFTA general counsel.

But that could cause problems with the Federal Highway Administration, which is providing 80 percent of the funds through the state Transportation Department, with the other 20 percent contributed by Erie County. Gerard J. Sentz, the county's public works commissioner, said the main problem lies in convincing the federal money people that 10 years is long enough to recover their investment.

"They don't want to put money in a trail and in 10 years have it wrapped up," he said, adding that everyone involved is trying to reach some type of compromise.

"We think it's a very important project," he added. "If everything came together, we could start construction next year.

One possibility under study involves building the path to one side of the right of way -- old tracks were removed about five years ago -- allowing for pedestrian and cyclists as well as light rail vehicles. But that plan would require widening bridges and strengthening embankments, ballooning the price to about three times the original estimate.

Sentz said he will work through the state to determine what federal officials consider acceptable.

"The feds want to make sure their investment is protected," he explained. "But what will they accept? Twenty years? Thirty years?"

While the fate of the proposed bike path remains unclear, not everybody is thrilled about either plan. And if nothing happens, that's just fine with Anthony Catanzaro -- who, as he has done for years -- was walking his dogs Wednesday afternoon along the abandoned right of way. He said he likes the area just the way it is.

"The only reason I even came here was because of this path, and a lot of other people are on the same page," he said. "If they do either, I would move out of the Town of Tonawanda and reside somewhere else. I don't understand why that would ever be done."