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NFTA given speedup for study of Buffalo-Amherst rail link

WASHINGTON – The U.S. government has agreed to change the terms of a $1.2 million federal grant to allow the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority to speed up its study of building a mass transit link between downtown Buffalo and Amherst.

The Federal Transit Administration agreed to the change at the request of Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who announced the move on Tuesday.

“This simple rule change will save an estimated $1 million and one year in the project’s development,” Schumer said. “That’s a year closer to a sensible system that ties the Medical Campus and downtown Buffalo with UB’s Amherst campus.”

Schumer won the $1.2 million grant for the study in October 2011, and at the time, federal law required that the money be spent on both an “alternatives analysis” and an “environmental review.”

Congress consolidated these two processes into one in highway legislation it passed last year – but not for projects that were funded under an earlier highway bill, which included the Buffalo transit study.

Such projects needed special approval for such a consolidation. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that approval in a letter to Schumer.

“I can assure you that FTA staff at headquarters and at the New York City Regional Office has been working with NFTA to amend the grant application, which should be completed in the near future,” LaHood wrote. “I also appreciate the need for transportation and other services over the wide-ranging area of Amherst, Buffalo and Niagara, and how much your constituents will benefit from the improvements.”

With the expansion of the Buffalo-Niagara Medical Campus and nearby parking in short supply, the NFTA has dusted off the decades-old idea of extending Metro Rail to Amherst and other northern suburbs.

The original plans four decades ago called for an eventual light rail link to the north, but the pending study will take a look both at that option and also much cheaper alternatives, such as dedicated bus lanes.

Under the study that will now go forward, the NFTA will consider these alternatives while also studying the environmental impact of each prospective plan.

While it is far too early to know exactly how a northern transit link would be constructed – or how it would be funded – NFTA officials envision a “coatless” transit system where a doctor could board public transit near his or her home in Amherst and travel to the Medical Campus without ever going outdoors.

Kim Minkel, the NFTA’s executive director, thanked Schumer for pressing the Federal Transit Administration to change the terms of the grant to allow the studies to be combined.

“Going forward, this will provide for a faster and less expensive process,” she said.