The recent decision by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority board of commissioners to cut busing miles by 22 percent and operational hours by 26 percent is simply shortsighted and potentially damaging to local residents and businesses. A strong public transportation system, in a region that boasts one of the top 10 poorest cities in the United States, is vitally important to our regional success, both socially and economically.
These cuts are on the heels of the NFTA recording 1.2 million more boardings in 2010 over 2009 and the complete restructuring of routes and rebalancing of service levels in October 2009. NFTA Chairman Henry M. Sloma indicated that the system has grown, yet the ridership has not. I would argue that the ridership has not changed because the NFTA has done little to allow it to change and that the growth of the system is further proof that there is no strategic plan or collaboration among community partners for transit.
A recent study by Brookings Institution showed Buffalo's coverage was ranked No. 1 among the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas for transit accessibility. However, the study also concludes that two-thirds of the jobs are inaccessible within 90 minutes, which puts a severe restriction on many city residents looking to find work in the suburbs. These figures represent the challenge that many job developers face when working with low-income, high-needs and hard-to-serve residents of this community. This translates directly to high unemployment rates, higher social service costs and higher crime rates.
Additionally census figures were highlighted in the Buffalo News article showing that the poverty level among residents in the suburbs is 52 percent, compared to 48 percent in the City of Buffalo, where coverage is 100 percent. These numbers demonstrate that the decisions by the board are not representative of our regional issues. The Brookings study concludes that transit leaders should make access to jobs a priority, which is continually a struggle for the Buffalo/Niagara region. Additionally it recommends that strategies should be developed regarding land use, economic development and housing; and to encompass members from the public, private and volunteer sectors to make more informed decisions regarding the service.
I do not fault the current board for this problem; I fault its makeup. Many public authorities include appointments from local administrations and various sectors of the community. The time has come to allow Buffalo, Erie County, work force development and the service provider community to have representatives on the NFTA board of commissioners. This would allow the various sectors of our community to be properly represented and it would allow the board to have access to important data when making decisions that could have a potentially harmful impact on our community.
Jeffrey M. Conrad is Erie County director for the Center for Employment Opportunities.