The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority has just announced its first big step toward getting out of the real estate business.
That's encouraging. After about five decades, the "transportation" authority is trying to refocus on its core mission of moving people, instead of spreading itself thin by managing a big chunk of outer harbor land.
As reported last week, the NFTA is preparing to sell the Small Boat Harbor and Gallagher Beach complex to a private developer.
NFTA commissioners voted to negotiate Bear Development Group's $3.5 million purchase offer plus its $15.3 million commitment to expand the harbor breakwater and make other improvements, including constructing interior parks, dredging the harbor and expanding marine facilities and Dug's Dive restaurant.
Bear Development is committed to continuing public access to the land, according to the NFTA. Bear needs to be held to that promise.
NFTA staff will now commence negotiations with West Seneca-based Bear on a final agreement, which would then return to the board for approval. That lengthy process means the NFTA will be operating the Small Boat Harbor for this summer.
This is the first real movement to get out of the real estate business after several years of trying, dating back to 2004. Back then, it looked as if the authority had a deal for the state to buy the marina and nearby land for $4 million and turn it into a state park.
While the contract for that sale was winding its way through the state comptroller's and attorney general'soffices, state budget issues hit and the purchase was delayed. And delayed. The deal finally died, bogged down in fiscal constraints and gubernatorial transitions.
Although the authority has come close to breaking even operating the marina, it faced the need for millions of dollars in maintenance and improvements at the facility. That reality forced the NFTA to step up efforts to find a buyer for the marina and the nearby port terminal warehouse complex.
At the same time, decreasing state aid has severely affected Metro Bus and Rail service, adding to the pressure to return to the NFTA's core mission.
Commissioners have just agreed in a preliminary vote to increase fares by 25 cents on May 1. Other measures include a re-engineering of the agency, which amounts to cutting unproductive routes and eliminating 50 positions, including 20 transit police officers.
The fare hike marks a reversal for the NFTA, which earlier proposed massive route cuts to close a budget deficit. That sparked outrage from passengers who said they had no choice but to rely on bus and rail service to get to work, to the doctor, to child care and a host of other places.
The preliminary agreement to sell the Small Boat Harbor is a significant step forward for the NFTA, but much more needs to be done. If transit aid continues to decline, the NFTA faces years of deficits. To remain solvent, it needs to revamp the way it does business, in addition to holding down costs and increasing revenues. Such cost-saving items as closing one of the system's three bus garages, relying more on technology and converting much of the bus fleet to compressed natural gas systems to save on fuel costs are welcome proposals. As we've said before, another possibility is to pursue public-private partnerships with businesses dependent on public transportation.
Divesting itself of unneeded real estate will help the NFTA concentrate on its real mission: Moving people.