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Passengers express disgust over NFTA bus route cuts; Prefer fare hike to keep the services running

The word was spreading quickly among the riders aboard the No. 11 Colvin bus heading from downtown Buffalo toward the Tonawandas this week -- their route is among those targeted for extinction by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

"Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me?" repeated Faith Hannick, who presses clothes in a dry-cleaning firm.

"Thanks for the news flash," she added with a hint of disgust.

But no one is kidding about the NFTA's plans to chop about 22 percent of its bus route miles in the spring to counter a $14.7 million deficit. Authority officials acknowledge that drastic restructuring to "right size" the system will cause hardships for many commuters relying on Metro for work, but they also see no other alternative.

On this day, the talk on the No. 11 turned to the high salaries of NFTA officials, to its stalled plans for waterfront development, and to its apparent disregard for affected commuters.

Passenger Robert Oliver pointed to a Buffalo News story on his lap outlining the cuts to come and assured everyone around him that the No. 11 and many other routes are about to become history.

"It says it right here," said Oliver, a technical support specialist who rides the bus every day. "It's crazy. For people who work in the suburbs, what do you do?"

The questions raised on a No. 11 that was nearly filled to capacity are exactly those confronting NFTA officials and commissioners over the past few months. Authority management has analyzed the system's dozens of bus routes, targeting those on the outer reaches of Erie and Niagara counties that carry only a handful of passengers daily as well as some serving the inner core.

The result is a streamlined system that primarily would serve more heavily used routes in Buffalo and its first-ring suburbs.

"Over time our system has creeped up in size for a variety of unknown reasons," Henry M. Sloma, acting chairman of the NFTA's board, said earlier this month. "It has grown and grown, and yet our ridership hasn't. We need to bring the system back in alignment with the financial structure."

That message has yet to resonate with passengers who rely on Metro Bus to reach their jobs. Scott, a security guard who declined to give his last name, said he does not own a car and relies on the system to not only commute to and from work, but to also reach his assignments.

"I can't even do that now," he said.

The NFTA says it knows its clientele and the effects the cutbacks will have.

Studies show service reductions will affect the 84 percent of Metro riders who use the system for work, along with the 77 percent who do not own a car. Indeed, none of those interviewed aboard the No. 11 Tuesday said they own a car.

"I used to have a vehicle, and it broke down, so I said I'll just take the bus," said Jadelle Richmond, a nurse. "It worked out better."

But commuters also question the fate of the authority's original plan -- a 25-cent fare hike accompanied by less-drastic route reductions. Many shrug their shoulders over a quarter hike in the fare -- especially if it meant preserving routes like the No. 11.

"A quarter? With the cost of food and everything else going up, what would be the difference?" asked Kevin Gill, a home-improvement contractor from the West Side.

Three NFTA commissioners who opposed the new plan this week are at least partially reflecting that view. Commissioner Howard A. Zemsky said he favored a combination of the 25-cent fare hike with less-drastic cutbacks, while Commissioner Adam W. Perry said too many questions are unanswered.

"If you live in the inner city and go out to GEICO or M&T data center, we can't really say how many people will be hurt," Perry said. "I'm concerned we don't have the right data. We know it will hurt people, but not to what extent."

Andrew J. Rudnick, considered the area's chief business spokesman as president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, said the NFTA has no good options. But he believes hiking the fare in difficult economic times exacerbates the problem.

And while "reverse commuters" headed to the suburbs face new obstacles, he does not know if there are enough to justify any other course of action by the NFTA.

"Somehow that needs to be covered," he said. "But I don't know how you address that and cut expenses at the same time."

"Until there is a change in attitude in Washington, what the NFTA faces now they will face in the future," he said.

He added that it would be worthwhile to study authority proposals for partnering with businesses seeking transportation for their workers.

After the NFTA reversed its budget approach and opted for wholesale cutbacks, some observers say it was mimicking former County Executive Joel A. Giambra's "red budget, green budget" approach -- proposing drastic options that would take effect unless transit operating assistance from New York State is restored.

Commissioner Michael P. Hughes compared a fare hike to a "Band-Aid on something that needs major surgery." But he also said Albany and Washington need to recognize the effects of their cutbacks.

"I honestly believe a fare increase is the easy way out," he said. "Then there would be no incentive for the state to assist, or for the feds to continue to invest in public transit."

Hughes acknowledged, however, that state cutbacks are affecting not only public transportation but health care, education and other areas, too.

"The commissioners are not taking this lightly, but the world is a different place," he said.

Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, said the state's recent award of $250 million to the downstate Metropolitan Transportation Authority to replace discontinued local taxes raises hopes for action on the NFTA's request for $10 million.

"I doubt anyone representing Buffalo or Erie County would not support equity in disposition of transit money like it was for the MTA," she said, adding that she, too, is most concerned about the pending inability of some commuters to reach their jobs.

Still, she would not question NFTA commissioners opting to shun the fare hike in favor of severe service cutbacks.

"They have to weigh the options that best fit their budget needs," she said. "I have to assume they did that. If not, they will have to face people, too, just like those of us who are elected."

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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