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Region’s transit funding gets a boost, but planners say it still falls short

ALBANY – The new budget adopted by state lawmakers Monday night fuels Erie and Niagara counties’ transit system at a healthier clip than what Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo first proposed in January, even if significantly less than what transit planners say is needed.

The new spending plan assigns a 2.97 percent increase in aid to the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority and all other upstate transit agencies, while sidestepping local pleas for special recognition of the needs of Buffalo’s light rail system.

But it also introduces a new funding system that moves away from a tax based on petroleum purchases to one pegged to sales tax revenue. Local agencies continued to complain that higher gas prices drove motorists to cut back on gasoline purchases, reducing revenue and pushing more commuters – ironically – to mass transit.

Still, the new document represents a hike of more than $1.3 million for the financially strapped NFTA – about twice as much as originally proposed by Cuomo. In January, the governor proposed an increase of about $605,000.

The new plan also contains a number of transportation incentives, including one to equip gasoline stations throughout the state with auxiliary power to fuel motorists in the event of catastrophes such as Superstorm Sandy. And significantly, it adds about $40 million to a statewide highway maintenance fund, which will increase resources for even basic functions like filling potholes.

But the main emphasis for Western New York lawmakers has been the NFTA. While the new allocation falls short of the kind of dollars federal officials say the system will eventually need, NFTA Chairman Howard A. Zemsky said that it represents a “darn good” start.

“To go from 1.35 percent to almost 3 percent is a big jump,” he said. “It pretty much assures a virtual zero percent reduction in service. That’s important. That’s our mission.”

State funding for NFTA operating assistance now stands at about $46.3 million, the highest among upstate transit agencies. It also includes a significant capital plan that is expected to send at least $10 million to upstate transit agencies, with one other source saying the final number could even out at about $12 million – all part of a $43.7 billion fund for overall statewide capital projects. “That’s significant,” Zemsky said. “We’re going to be obviously pursuing that.”

The capital funds will allow a more aggressive purchase of cleaner, compressed natural gas buses, he said, adding that the new budget also gives the NFTA another year to retire the dirtiest vehicles of its diesel fleet before meeting requirements to retrofit with cleaner engines.

Western New York legislators, meanwhile, seemed pleased with the final budget, even if basic NFTA concerns about light rail funding were not addressed.

Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, said the state aid will now stem more from sales tax formulas than petroleum taxes, though the petroleum business tax remains intact.

“It’s a positive thing,” he said, acknowledging that more attention still needs to be paid to upstate transit funding.

Sen. Michael H. Ranzenhofer, R-Amherst, praised the move as a “systemic” change that can only help struggling upstate agencies such as the NFTA. And Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan, R-Elma, credited Republicans in the Senate with pushing the idea.

“In the Assembly budget, they put in zero increases for upstate transit,” Ranzenhofer added.

But while the budget includes $4.34 billion for the giant Metropolitan Transportation Authority in the New York City area, upstate senators such as Democrat Timothy M. Kennedy of Buffalo pointed to significant improvements in programs pouring more money into upstate roads.

On top of $438 million already dedicated to the road maintenance fund, he said, an additional $40 million is now added for projects aimed at repairing statewide damage from the brutal winter.

“Given the severity of the weather, government now assures that roads are safe for Western New York commuters,” he said.

Nobody from the NFTA or local legislative delegation seemed pleased Monday that the new spending plan again ignores the complete funding needs of Buffalo’s rail system. Indeed, a federal report in 2013 noted that despite efficiencies and solid management, the authority faced unsustainable costs in coming years without a major change in financing formulas.

Zemsky said Monday that the NFTA’s special needs remain. “We think the NFTA transit system is a lot different,” he said. “But we still got more funding than any other upstate agency. We would be remiss if we did not extend our gratitude to all levels of government.”

Of the efforts to increase funding for Metro Rail operations, Zemsky said, “We’ll keep trying.”