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Leaders' pleas led NFTA to cut routes; Was 'only alternative' to fare rise, Sloma says

Community leaders, including a city lawmaker, had pleaded with the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority not to raise bus fares, a move that led the agency to offer a plan to cut bus routes, the authority chairman said Tuesday.

"We were approached by a good number of community leaders from Buffalo, including a member of the [Common] Council, who said, 'Please, please, please, don't raise the fare.' And we listened," NFTA Chairman Henry Sloma said.

So the agency went "back to the drawing board" and returned with a plan that called for service reductions instead, which was the "only alternative," said Sloma, who did not identify any of those officials by name.

Sloma's comments came during a meeting Tuesday afternoon of the Council's Legislation Committee, a session to which both the public and NFTA officials were invited.

Tuesday's meeting coincided with a series of public hearings on proposed bus route reductions being held by the NFTA this week. The sessions are to gather public input on a proposal to deal with the remaining $7 million of a $14.7 million budget gap.

Authority staff in November recommended a 25-cent fare increase and some system cutbacks, but the authority board in December selected a drastic overhaul of the system.

Buffalo's top lawmaker said Tuesday he believes some city residents are willing to pay an increased bus fare rather than seeing routes cut.

Common Council President Richard A. Fontana said he does not think it is "universally accepted" that the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority cannot raise its fares in the wake of a multimillion-dollar deficit.

"There are those who would rather have service and pay a fee," Fontana said in City Hall.

Five members of the public spoke during the nearly hourlong session in Council Chambers, including city resident Samuel Herbert, who called for NFTA officials to trim their own salaries to help deal with the deficit.

Herbert said he understands there is a fiscal crisis, but the NFTA officials "have to tighten their belt."

"I personally feel that this has been a serious scam organized to threaten the public that [they] would cut the routes if [they] don't get a fare increase," Herbert said.

The NFTA also should seek additional state funding to help close the funding gap, Herbert said.

"This increase is going to hurt, and we're going to be in the same position four years from now," he said.

Joining Sloma at the meeting were NFTA Executive Director Kimberley Minkel; Tom George, director of surface transportation; and spokesman C. Douglas Hartmayer. They left about 45 minutes after the meeting began, saying they had to set up for Tuesday night's public hearing in Niagara Falls.

Other hearings organized by the NFTA will be held at noon and 6 p.m. today in the Central Library downtown, and at 6 p.m. Thursday in Building 5 on the Erie Community College South Campus.