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Rethinking the NFTA Authority must take lessons from successful examples in other cities

Sometimes with crisis comes opportunity.

The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, scrambling to recover from a $14.7 million budget deficit, finds itself in this very situation.

So far, the NFTA has seemed ill prepared to seize the opportunity. Its leadership needs to take bolder, more imaginative steps in getting the transit authority's finances and services back on track.

For too long, instead of critically re-examining the way it does business and finding smarter, better methods, the NFTA was content to rely on money-generating real estate ventures to help subsidize a transportation network riddled with inefficiencies.

The once lucrative waterfront property -- which includes the Small Boat Harbor and port terminal complex -- lately has become an albatross, with $50 million in repairs needed.

The authority is now paying the price. Or more accurately, its ridership -- the vast majority of whom have no other means of transport -- is paying the price. Routes are being drastically slashed and the frequency of bus runs will plummet, even as more of the region's better-paying service jobs move to the suburbs.

It all adds up to less service, fewer riders and further erosion of a public transportation system that's absolutely vital to the Buffalo Niagara region's economic growth.

It doesn't have to be this way.

Just down the Thruway, the Rochester Genesee Regional Transportation Authority is attracting riders in droves, maintaining a $1 bus fare and stringing together six straight years of budget surpluses.

In 2004, the RGRTA stared down an even larger budget deficit than the NFTA has now. At the time, the Rochester authority was in the hole $27 million.

Instead of simply abandoning routes and slashing services, however, RGRTA leaders got creative. For a price, the RGRTA began tailoring routes to the needs of businesses and other entities with employees who used buses to get to work.

Hill Haven nursing home, for example, struck a deal to pay the RGRTA $19,000 a year, ensuring that a route to the Rochester suburb of Webster would be maintained, with service concentrated at peak times of the day.

Rochester Institute of Technology has a deal with the RGRTA that amounts to about $2 million per year. In all, the authority hammered out more than 50 similar arrangements.

The model has been working for years in Rochester.

It's troubling the NFTA has waited until now to try to replicate what our neighbors to the east have done so well.

According to Kimberly A. Minkel, executive director of the NFTA for the past year, previous attempts to develop public-private partnerships here just didn't take root.

Minkel said those arrangements will be pivotal to the future of bus service in the region.

State legislators can assist, too. They must continue pushing for the restoration of $10 million in transit operating assistance. It's only fair, given that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo provided $250 million to the downstate Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Cuomo did include $2.9 million in new operating aid for the NFTA in next year's budget proposal. That money will help restore some route cuts.

But if the NFTA manages to get the rest of the requested $10 million, it can't be used simply to fill more of the budget gap. NFTA officials should view it as a "reinvention grant" to help them overhaul the bus system and jump-start conversations with businesses, nonprofit organizations and others on providing prompt, efficient service to the broadest number of passengers possible.

The NFTA also needs to get out of the real estate business as soon as possible. It has distracted the authority's full attention from its core mission and contributed to the current crisis.

Now is the right time for the NFTA to re-evaluate its police force, as well. The authority plans to lay off 20 of the force's 100 officers, raising a pertinent question: Is there a better way to make sure bus, Metro Rail and airline passengers are safe and secure?

Minkel said enhanced cameras can do the work of some officers.

But can the NFTA go as far as the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, which abolished its police department of 26 officers in 2005 due to budget constraints?

Getting rid of the NFTA Transit Police would save about $6 million in salaries alone. It is worth a thorough review, especially considering that other transit authorities function without their own police.

The RGRTA, for example, relies on the Rochester Police Department, the National Guard and some contracted security.

Minkel pointed out that the Rochester comparisons might not be especially fair, given that the NFTA system is significantly larger and more complex, with a subway and two airports, in addition to the bus routes.

She suggested a better corollary might be the Memphis Area Transit Authority or the Port Authority of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh, Pa.

The Memphis authority does not employ its own police force, either, choosing to rely instead on contracted security.

And in Pittsburgh, the Port Authority carried an average of 220,000 passengers a day in 2010, compared with 93,500 passengers per day in Buffalo Niagara.

Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Port Authority protected those riders with a police department of 40 officers and 10 security guards -- half the patrol as in Buffalo, for more than double the passengers.

Opportunity knocks. Now, it's a matter of whether the NFTA is listening through the din of financial crisis.