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Albany should provide vital funding needed to sustain NFTA

The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority is supposed to play a key role in the rebirth of downtown, but it is teetering financially. The agency is running an aging system that includes some buses from the 1990s. The escalators and elevators at some Metro Rail stations do not work. Service cuts are threatened.

Albany needs to grant the agency’s request for an additional $9.8 million in operating funds so that the public transportation system can meet current and future demands.

Part of that future includes serving the expanding Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, which is expected to attract thousands of new workers in the next few years. With limited on-site parking, the majority will have to rely on buses and trains to get to work. Add to that the growth in activities at Canalside and this is no time to shortchange public transit.

Acknowledging the financial difficulties, the NFTA’s executive director has said the agency has no choice but to put off the $27 million multiyear effort to replace aged escalators in subway stations.

The push by Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo, and others to get more State Transit Operating Assistance funds for all upstate transportation agencies offers some glimmer of hope, although the NFTA has to push ahead with its budget as if it is getting no increase in operating assistance. If Albany comes through with more money, the NFTA is ready to restore some of its priority projects.

Part of the NFTA’s problem stems from its uncertain funding sources, which start with Albany’s annual budget dance. But it also relies on such things as taxes on fuel distributors, at a time prices are dropping, and landline phone companies, as people are cutting the cord.

The NFTA has taken a number of steps to help balance its budget. In 2012 the NFTA raised fares 25 cents, laid off police officers, set a hiring freeze in place and did not provide raises that were not contractually mandated. There were other internal cost-cutting actions, along with changes in service.

Over the last five years, the agency’s expenses have increased a mere 2.6 percent, compared to an average of 17.6 percent at all other New York State authorities. One result is that the NFTA is still running 20 buses – out of 306 – that are two decades old.

The buses are safe, but to attract new riders it helps to have shiny new buses. The agency will have to finance bus purchases going forward, making interest payments, as opposed to paying in full.

Here is a good sign: Ryan is optimistic that Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie of the Bronx is open to upstate needs and not concerned just with New York City’s behemoth Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

A separate proposal by Ryan and Democratic Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes of Buffalo that would provide 80 cents in state assistance for any new rider deserves consideration. Linked to that is another Ryan proposal for a two-year pilot program to reduce Metro Bus and Rail fares by half to $1. That could spur ridership and grab more incentive money.

Public transportation plays a vital role in the daily lives of countless people and should not be taken for granted. Especially not by the state.