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Medical Campus officials fear subway delays will sidetrack development plans

To those planning the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, the future extends far beyond construction cranes and rising steel.

They envision not only a bustling medical facility employing 17,500 people in just a few years, but an urban transformation as well. That means a true city environment with few cars and largely dependent on mass transportation like Metro Rail.

But critics say the Buffalo subway is now jeopardizing its own potential for a relevant role in the city’s transportation future.

Beginning Sunday and stretching into October, commuters face yet another season of significant delays – 20 minutes or more – in train frequency because of the $30 million project to return traffic to Main Street.

Last year, commuters accustomed to 12-minute intervals between trains abandoned the system in droves when headways stretched to 20 minutes apart – sometimes longer. Ridership dropped by 25 percent (about 5,000 people daily), and transit officials expressed fear they won’t return.

Now Medical Campus officials say their own plans – and hopes for a revitalized transit system surging with riders from apartments and homes sprouting along the line – are at least temporarily sidetracked by an undependable subway.

The project for cars and trains to share Main Street may stretch years into the future, and they say the timing couldn’t be worse.

“We’re going to have another 5,000 people here in another three years between the new medical school and Women’s & Children’s Hospital,” said Patrick J. Whalen, chief operating officer of the Medical Campus. “Our best tool is public transportation, and when public transportation is not working right, it makes it difficult to achieve our goal.”

The goal extends beyond the medical facility, said Matthew K. Enstice, Medical Campus president.

“Our sole focus is getting more people to take transit and using transit as an economic engine to rebuild the tax base,” he said. “I want to find solutions for how the (transit) customer will enjoy the experience.”

Kimberley A. Minkel, executive director of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, acknowledges that 20-minute intervals between trains will discourage new riders. But she emphasizes the situation is temporary. And when the construction is completed, an improved Metro Rail will serve not only the Medical Campus but a renewed downtown, she added.

“In the end, we’ll have a system that is much better,” she said. “We have to go through inconvenience in the short term, but we will try to minimize that and ask our riders to bear with us.”

Medical Campus planners and employees, though, are impatient. Administrators fear plans to integrate the rail system into the emerging medical corridor may be delayed by years.

Automatically late

The problem became apparent last year when campus commuters told similar tales of long waits. Anyone missing an inbound train, they complained, became automatically late for work waiting for the next one. The Medical Campus’ “Give Transit a Try” plan to increase bus and subway use at the complex is now shelved for lack of interest, Whalen said.

“It’s an awesome system when it’s running every 10 to 12 minutes,” he said. “But if it runs every 25 to 30 minutes, it’s tough.”

For regular commuters like Teraysa Smith, a senior medical biller at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, the news of another summer of delays was not well received.

“Oh, no. More delays?” she said when asked about the coming Metro Rail work. “That was so inconvenient last year. It was horrible.”

Smith said trains running 20 or 25 minutes apart during last summer’s project forced her to leave 45 minutes early to ensure an on-time arrival at work. She is disappointed, she said, because the Allen-Medical Campus Station’s convenience and timely trains normally translate into a “great” commute every day.

“But lately, it hasn’t been so great,” she said. “And with parking so bad here, I rely on it heavily.”

Smith’s experience, magnified by thousands of other commuters, now clouds the vision shared by the NFTA, Medical Campus and city officials for a new and enhanced role for Metro Rail. All envision more people living in the City of Buffalo, attracted by a normally convenient commute to downtown jobs.

As a result, at least $91 million has or is soon to be invested in real estate projects – primarily lofts and apartments – near subway stations. The city hopes to approve 800 to 900 new housing units along the Main Street subway spine by 2016, with as many as 2,000 to 3,000 more in later years, according to Brendan R. Mehaffy, the Brown administration’s executive director of strategic planning.

Short-term difficulties

The effort to restore traffic to the 500 block of Main Street is expected to disrupt Metro Rail this summer, with similar problems resulting from extending the project to Mohawk Street by the fall of 2015.

After that, Minkel points to work slated for lower Main Street, where a cross-over track at Scott Street will lessen the need for single tracking and delays. But work and delay problems could conceivably continue for years, she acknowledged, as efforts to restore traffic to Main Street progress.

NFTA officials say they are fully on board with the Main Street project that not only returns cars to the thoroughfare, but repairs track beds, provides spiffy new stations and presents a sense of vitality and safety.

The short-term difficulties plaguing the system this year and part of next summer will be worth the long-term benefits, Minkel said.

“It’s an opportunity for the NFTA to do much-needed rehabilitation, make repairs in the track bed and also improve the above-ground stations,” she said. “Fountain Plaza Station will look almost brand new with technology announcing when the train is arriving, video, audio and radiant heating.”

One way to compensate for the temporary inconvenience is stepped-up service on the No. 8 bus still plying Main Street above the subway, she said. Plans call for buses on that line to run every 15 minutes instead of every 30. And a “strong focus” will be made to coordinate schedules for outbound commuters transferring from rail to bus at University Station, said James K. Morrell, the NFTA’s manager of planning.

Creative solutions

Still, Medical Campus insiders say additional creative solutions are in order, especially if more delays are coming.

“If there’s more to come, we’ve got to sit down with the right stakeholders to implement a solution,” Enstice said. “That’s the key.”

Some wonder if the NFTA could operate a separate system in the tunnel to accommodate the Medical Campus. But Minkel said transit planners concluded transferring to shuttle buses at the Allen-Medical Campus Station would prove counterproductive.

And while the Department of Transportation and Thruway Authority often schedule highway work at night to avoid peak drive times, Minkel said the NFTA concluded that scheduling such a major project and its accompanying noise after daylight would disrupt downtown residents and hotel guests.

Mehaffy in City Hall emphasizes that returning cars to downtown ranks as a major objective. It can’t be ignored, he said, and that’s why the goal of an attractive and functioning downtown has ranked high on the administration’s priority list for 10 years.

“The mayor has committed several million dollars to this, reflecting a substantial public investment,” he said. “We want to make sure Main Street reflects a positive feeling.”

He also said the city plans to seek federal money to continue the project. “We’ll try to be as nondisruptive as possible,” he said.

Michael T. Schmand, executive director of Buffalo Place, agrees that the Main Street project is of paramount importance. “It had to be done,” he said, insisting that private investment will follow the government funds.

“Someday we’ll have a beautiful waterfront, a beautiful retail district and a beautiful theater district right through to the Medical Campus,” he said. “I don’t apologize for it. It’s needed.”

Nor will he criticize the NFTA, which he said knows how to run its trains and has been “very professional.”

Medical Campus officials say they also recognize the importance of the project. And they emphasize that the NFTA is listening and more aware of their problem than when the project was first planned.

But they also continue to worry that the potential for Metro Rail as a development tool for the first time in its 30-year history may now be seriously hampered.

“Everybody has to work together,” Enstice said, “to make sure service to the customer is the best it can be.”