For an extra 50 cents per ride, Metro Bus will offer express service from the suburbs to downtown Buffalo on five routes beginning Sept. 2.
The new service represents the most extensive express routes ever scheduled by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. It offers nonstop routes that could save as much as seven minutes per trip, with amenities such as free Wi-Fi service along the way. Thomas George, the NFTA's director of surface transportation, called the new transit option a "cultural change" that hopefully will boost ridership.
"We are reaching out to a new constituency with this enhanced product," he said.
He also said that NFTA officials held public hearings earlier this year to gauge response to proposed fare hikes and service cuts. Riders responded with approval when asked if they would pay more for enhanced service.
"A lot of this is in direct response to what we heard at the public hearings," he said, noting the new direct service will cost $2.50.
The routes proposed for the new service include:
*60-Niagara Falls: An existing route operating via I-190 and the Robert Moses Parkway, ending at the downtown bus terminal.
*64-Lockport: Existing trip with limited stops on Transit Road and Millersport Highway and ending at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
*69E-Alden: New trip with direct service from Appletree Business Park to the medical campus.
*72E-Orchard Park: New service to and from the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus via Erie Community College South and The Shops.
*204-Airport: Existing trip from Buffalo Niagara International Airport via Kensington Expressway to the bus terminal.
George told commissioners of the Surface Transportation Committee that some loss of ridership on the regular routes could occur because of the change in schedule. But he also emphasized that local service will continue along the same routes, and that those preferring the slower but less expensive service will retain that option.
Now the authority will begin marketing the new service with direct mail to residents near the routes, introducing the express buses and possibly offering a free ride.
George said the NFTA is also taking initial steps to emulate public-private partnerships such as those formed by the Rochester Genesee Regional Transportation Authority. Integral to developing the new schedules, he added, were talks with medical campus officials interested in earlier schedules for their employees.
He also explained that the authority has discussed an agreement with the Buffalo Niagara Work Force Consortium to support restored service to the Darien Lake theme park.
Thirty to 35 workers could rely on Metro Bus to commute, adding the service would be fully paid for.
The idea is to enter into partnerships with various businesses in the area that would be willing to supplement losses for extending beyond normal service area.
"This is the model we would like to use going forward," said Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel. "This is the Rochester model of public-private partnerships."
But several commissioners raised questions about the propriety of service outside the authority's Erie and Niagara counties base, especially since the theme park itself will not directly participate in the program.
"We're going out of our footprint for this," said Commissioner James J. Eagan, adding the authority must now answer to local employees questioning cuts in service to places where they may be employed.
And Commissioner Henry M. Sloma warned that expanding service without ways to pay for it caused problems in the past.
"The lesson to be learned is to be careful how you grow," he said.
Staff assured commissioners they will heed their concerns while continuing to seek more public-private partnerships. George added that staff also would reach out to the Buffalo Bills about subsidizing bus service to home games, which were cut in the latest round of service reductions. He indicated, however, that the football club has not been receptive to the idea of subsidies in the past.