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‘Basic fairness’ at issue as NFTA rues state’s outlay

A critical NFTA board on Thursday posed questions of “basic fairness” over Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s new state budget proposal that they say ignores the needs of upstate’s only light-rail operation.

While commissioners of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority took no official action, the board’s vice chairman rapped the Cuomo administration, the area’s legislative delegation and NFTA lobbyists for so far failing to obtain a 5 percent increase in state operating assistance to run buses and subways in Erie and Niagara counties.

“This is disappointing news,” Commissioner Henry M. Sloma said. “We need to talk to our political people.”

Sloma, a Republican who formerly served as the NFTA’s acting chairman, said the 1.35 percent increase in overall state funding for the transit agency proposed this week fails to provide a “fair share” to the authority. He said the allocation ignores the NFTA’s unique status as a rail operator, while other upstate authorities run buses only.

Commissioner Adam W. Perry, a Democrat, said the state should recognize the NFTA’s needs and that bus-only authorities are still receiving more operating assistance from the state.

“We need to do something dramatic,” he said. “We have to take the lead to help ourselves. We need to make more noise about this. What about the concept of basic fairness?”

NFTA Chairman Howard A. Zemsky, one of Cuomo’s closest Western New York confidants, was more subdued in his reaction to the budget news. While the authority’s new budget projected a 5 percent increase in state operating assistance, he said, NFTA officials must now review “all aspects” of their operations and possibly defer scheduled capital expenses.

But he also said changes are needed in the way upstate authorities are funded by the state. “We’ve done our best to highlight the fiscal challenges associated with transit funding,” Zemsky said. “There are some structural issues that need to be addressed for upstate – and particularly Western New York – transit. We will continue to advocate for that.”

But he said he did not envision any advantage stemming from his close relationship with Cuomo.

“I don’t think decisions about the budget are made on personal relationships,” Zemsky said. “I have personally met with the transportation folks. There is an appropriate way to advocate for the NFTA’s interests, and I certainly am actively engaged in doing that.”

Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger, D-Kenmore, suggested last month that the focus be put on the administration, especially since Zemsky (whom he described as “the governor’s best buddy”) heads the NFTA. He also said he would press the NFTA’s case.

But Sloma said Thursday he has seen little reaction from the Western New York delegation. He said the only time he ever hears from them is over proposed cuts in transit or paratransit service – which he added usually stem from state budget reductions.

“It amazes the hell out of me,” he said. “It’s frustrating.”

Sloma also called it “almost ironic” that Cuomo has taken extraordinary steps to provide economic assistance to Western New York on many levels, but has not adequately funded a transit system.

“They fail to recognize we play a part in that future success,” he said. “It would be disappointing if we were unable to meet the challenges of all that is going on. It just doesn’t make any sense that they don’t see this.”

He cited the need for Metro Rail to ferry more than 17,000 projected workers to the burgeoning Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus as a prime example.

NFTA Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel said she has testified before the Legislature to call for a new funding source that no longer depends on a telephone land lines tax and gasoline taxes, both of which have declined in recent years. Downstate transit operations are funded by more reliable taxes, she said, while local dependence on the sales tax also is no longer working.

“It’s not really an NFTA issue, it’s a transit issue across the state,” she said.

She added, however, that Albany gave $51 million to the Westchester County bus system – almost the exact same size as the Metro Bus fleet (about 320 buses) – while providing only $45 million locally. And she emphasized that Westchester is not responsible for any rail system.

“That’s a huge disparity,” she said.

Over the last several months, the NFTA has cited a 2013 Federal Transit Administration report warning that New York’s reluctance to adequately fund Metro Bus and Rail could result in drastic cuts in service. Minkel said in December that she wonders how cuts could balance the budget without catastrophic reductions.

But state officials say the NFTA also enjoys benefits from sales tax revenue not realized by other upstate systems, and that the state has taken “extraordinary steps” to keep NFTA funding whole.