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Fare hike a last resort; NFTA has to exhaust every other option before hitting bus and rail passengers

The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority is facing some difficult choices as it deals with a sizable budget deficit, but increasing transit fares must be the last resort.

No final decisions have been made, but the possibility of a fare hike has been a hot topic of discussion.

The News has reported this week that the NFTA is facing a $15 million budget gap, and staffers were asked to make a number of recommendations to the board of commissioners on ways to close approximately $12 million of that gap. An unfortunate -- but necessary -- part of that discussion is a fare increase.

Although the NFTA's fares compare favorably to those in similar cities, any increase would have a big impact on many of its patrons.

Authority officials and its board of commissioners understand the hardship a fare increase would cause to some riders, which is why they emphasize that no final decision has been made. The tricky part of the decision is balancing the need for new money with the needs of a captive ridership.

The authority is examining its route structure to determine which ones are underperforming and could be considered for cuts.

Every meeting of the NFTA Audit and Governance Committee deals with some aspect of the budget. Over the past few months, more than $12 million in potential savings has been identified. Part of that comes from access to low-cost power from the New York Power Authority, which would save an estimated $1.8 million a year.

In addition, the authority has looked for savings in energy efficiency, facility consolidations, leasing opportunities and overtime. A study of fueling strategies led them to apply for funding for compressed natural gas vehicles, which could provide a huge savings because compressed natural gas is currently cheaper than diesel. Diesel fuel prices have gone up 36 percent in the last year, and that volatility was a big contributor to the NFTA's current predicament.

At the same time, officials are looking for revenue enhancements and cost-saving opportunities unrelated to bus and rail. The NFTA is trying to sell Port Terminals A and B and the Small Boat Harbor, which would save the authority nearly $1 million a year. Parking rate hikes at both the Buffalo Niagara International Airport and Niagara Falls Airport are being considered.

Despite all that, there may still be a need to consider service cuts and fare increases.

The last increase in bus and rail fares occurred in January 2009. At that time, the cost of a ride increased from $1.50 to $1.75. Under one possible scenario, the NFTA is considering raising that base fare to $2. Cleveland has both a bus and a rail system and charges $2.25. A monthly pass in Buffalo could rise from $64 to $73, still less than Cleveland's $85. In Pittsburgh, the fare is $2.25, the monthly pass is $90.

With that said, Buffalo is a poor city and 77 percent of transit riders are dependent upon public transportation, with no other dependable means of getting around. Cutting back on service and increasing fares will cause them additional hardship. The NFTA must explore every other possibility.

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