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With Zemsky bowing out as chairman, NFTA is losing a powerful advocate

Howard Zemsky has demonstrated a remarkable passion for public service. He has been willing to give of his time and resources to make this a better community, and to lose his presence on any of the number of volunteer boards on which he sits is difficult. Case in point: He is stepping down as chairman of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

It was never going to be easy for Zemsky to remain with the NFTA while also maintaining his new role as the state’s commissioner of economic development and president of Empire State Development.

He had been expected to leave the NFTA at some point, but the abrupt announcement was a surprise. There had been some complaints that his work for the NFTA – a state agency – posed a conflict of interest with his work as the state’s development chief.

It should be noted that Zemsky pledged to take a $1-a-year salary from the state for the full-time economic job. He said he will not step away from his development company or move from the Buffalo area. Indeed, his commitment to the city has always run deep.

Zemsky was first appointed to the NFTA board of commissioners in 2008 by then-Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer, who later nominated him as chairman. That nomination languished for years, until he was renominated for chairman by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and finally confirmed.

Under Zemsky’s chairmanship, the transit agency set off on a determined track to return to its core mission: moving people. The NFTA got out of the waterfront management business that had been a burden for decades, negotiating the sale of Outer Harbor lands to the state parks system and the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.

Unfortunately, an expensive project to replace Metro Rail’s aging escalators continues to get caught in the state budgetary jungle. And the agency’s operating deficit forced it to ask the state for more money. This intersection of Zemsky’s local and state jobs raised questions about his primary allegiance. In a tricky maneuver, the NFTA received more state aid while Zemsky claimed to have no direct role in final budgeting negotiations.

His dedication to improving the NFTA is unquestionable. Maybe that is why he seemed reluctant to relinquish the chairman’s seat. Zemsky has worn numerous volunteer hats, all aimed at rebuilding Western New York.

The governor tapped him to be co-chairman of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council, one of 10 across the state created by Cuomo in 2011. Zemsky, who has since stepped down from the post, was tasked with the enormous responsibility of devising long-term job creation plans and linking them with this area’s unique attributes. He, along with co-chairman and University at Buffalo President Satish Tripathi, came through.

As the head of Larkin Development Group, Zemsky renewed the district just east of downtown into what has become known as Larkinville, rescuing that neighborhood’s rich history and sharing it with the community in the form of near year-round public activities.

It is difficult to lose him as NFTA chairman, but we are fortunate that he plans, as he told The News, to continue advocating “for transit systems in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany as a member of Cuomo’s Cabinet.”

Cuomo’s task, now that he has taken Zemsky away from the NFTA, is to find a replacement equally single-minded about Western New York. It won’t be easy.