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Another Voice: Transit riders should benefit from NFTA’s land sale

By Nadine Lemmon

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recently announced that the state will purchase 400 acres of waterfront in Buffalo’s outer harbor from the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. The sale is a coup for the governor, who has unblocked a stubborn logjam. It’s a potential win for park advocates, who have long hoped to fulfill Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision. And it’s a renewed sign that the NFTA’s new leadership is focusing on what it knows best: transit.

Unfortunately, it is not clear yet how this is a win for Buffalo’s transit riders. This property brought in $1 million annually for the NFTA and was recently on the market for $4 million. Sales price to the state? The price of a Metro Rail ticket – $2. One can only hope there is more to this deal to put the struggling transit system back on its feet.

If not, here are three steps Cuomo should take to help stabilize the NFTA:

• Sign the lockbox bill. Fare revenues for the NFTA cover only 25 percent of operating expenses. Over the years, the state has dedicated certain taxes and fees to transit to help make ends meet.

Unfortunately, when smart fiscal decisions have not been made by the State Legislature, lawmakers dip into this pot of money, leaving transit riders in the lurch. The Buffalo News put it succinctly:

“Fares don’t come close to paying the cost of mass transit. Government subsidies are necessary, and that’s why the state created a dedicated revenue stream. Signing the Transit Lockbox Bill will help ensure that the money reaches its intended beneficiaries.”

• Allocate some of that promised $1 billion to transit. Besides getting people to work, the NFTA puts people to work. According to a recent analysis by the NFTA, the authority spends $22 million in Western New York annually on things like vehicles, bus and rail components, office supplies and safety and communication equipment. If Cuomo’s promise of $1 billion in economic development funds is all spent on automobile-oriented development, it’ll be pouring good money after bad. If partially spent on the NFTA, it’ll be an economic engine for the entire region.

• Find better revenue streams. The NFTA gets a good chunk of its operating money from state transit operating assistance. This pot of money is fed by the state petroleum business tax, but that tax isn’t pegged to inflation, so it has been a declining resource. As a comparison, this year downstate transit systems (which have a much more diversified set of revenues) received a 7.4 percent boost in their state operating funds; the NFTA got a zero percent increase. Without improved sources of funding, the NFTA will have no choice but to shrink the system.

Buffalo transit riders, the state just got a big prize. It owes you something. Ask for it.

Nadine Lemmon is Albany legislative advocate for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.