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Metro Rail riders face mounting problems in aging system

Shadrack Babwiriza had just finished climbing the 46 upper steps of the Metro Rail Humboldt-Hospital Station a few days ago when he paused to catch his breath.

The station’s upper escalator sat silent once again, roped off by an “out of service” sign that forced commuters like Babwiriza to the stairs on yet another morning.

“I have to use these stairs every day, basically,” the Medaille College sophomore said. “It’s horrible. What’s wrong? Doesn’t the city have the money to fix it?”

Along a Metro Rail system now approaching 30 years of age, commuters are asking similar questions as they face a perfect storm of problems with no immediate end in sight. Though the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority stands ready to modernize an increasingly creaky system, complications are expected again, prompting drastic drops in ridership:

They include:

• A survey last week determined four escalators – one-sixth of system capacity – out of service, prompting the authority to unveil a replacement project expected to cost millions of dollars. Humboldt-Hospital ranked as the most affected station, with two of its four escalators closed.

• The Feb. 18 start of a project to replace Metro Rail’s overhead catenary wire between the Humboldt-Hospital and Allen-Medical Campus stations resulted in delays of between six and 15 minutes to the normal 12-minute intervals between trains – as predicted. The 20-minute wait at Humboldt-Hospital on the first morning of the project spawned a fair share of early morning grumbling.

“Every time you turn around, the system is down,” one woman complained.

• Another project, which restores traffic to the Main Street surface section, will cause further delays from late March to fall.

• As many as four subway cars are simultaneously taken out of service for a complete rebuild at rail shops in Dansville – part of a $40 million project to keep the 27 cars in the rusting fleet rolling.

• The authority spent $131,000 to replace deteriorated panels in Delavan-Canisius College Station, where seeping moisture and years of wear and tear have taken their toll. But a massive plate glass window at the station’s street level remains covered by plywood, 14 months after an errant driver plowed through.

While Metro Rail still delivers tens of thousands of commuters every day, the system faces a rough stretch ahead, acknowledged NFTA spokesman C. Douglas Hartmayer.

“These are challenging times for us and our staff,” he said. “We realize that and hope our customers will bear with us and continue to use the system. Once it’s done, we’ll be in a better position to serve our customers.”

The deteriorating conditions hit Metro Rail just as the system is poised to assume a greater role in moving workers to new employment centers, especially the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and the 17,500 people projected to work there over the next few years. The Allen-Medical Campus Station is critically important because the new University at Buffalo Medical School will be incorporated into the existing structure.

Hartmayer said that the authority would rather offer a fully functioning system to the many new riders expected in coming years but added that the projects must be addressed now for any future role to succeed.

“This has to be done,” he said. “So it’s timely to be done now as opposed to later when greater numbers of people will be disrupted at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and the medical school. The pain we go through now will result in better service to larger numbers of people coming downtown.”

Hartmayer reiterated that delays stemming from single track use related to the catenary wire and Main Street traffic projects are unavoidable.

Last year, the system experienced a drop of between 4,000 and 5,000 passengers per day – almost 25 percent – because of increased wait times for trains due to single track use.

But he also said the NFTA has not offered any discounts or other incentives to commuters to entice them back onto Metro trains.

“There have been no specific conversations about fare options,” he said, “but that could come up in the future.”

More concrete plans are now being made, however, for an expedited replacement of 22 of the system’s 24 escalators over the next several years. Late this month or in early March, the authority will issue a request for proposals to replace every escalator in every station except University, where one unit was rehabilitated earlier this year and the other is scheduled for repair short of complete replacement, Hartmayer said.

The University Station situation called for immediate action, he said, prompting the less extensive rehabilitation effort – pegged earlier this year at $426,166 for one of the units. The rest calls for total replacement.

“This will double their useful life (to as much as 25 years), and they will be much more energy-efficient,” Hartmayer said. “And they will have a modular design that will allow use of the existing trusses.”

Because the request for proposals has not yet been received, Hartmayer said it would be “speculative” to discuss costs, though he indicated the project is expected to reach into the millions of dollars, to be covered by federal, state and NFTA sources.

While authority commissioners and engineers have debated the merits of rehabilitation versus replacement in recent months, Hartmayer said a new system for most stations is now the plan.

“In some cases, we’ve been running on borrowed time,” he said of the escalators. “And if you just put on a Band-Aid, you’re throwing good money after bad.”

Plans call for the first new escalators to be installed in Allen-Medical Campus Station as part of the medical school work slated there, followed by Delavan-Canisius College Station and then other stations down the line.