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Niagara Falls residents urge NFTA to restore route segment

NIAGARA FALLS – Advocates for individuals with disabilities on Monday called on the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority to restore part of a bus route between Niagara Falls and Lockport.

Until Monday, Bus Route 55, which starts at the Portage Road Transportation Center and includes a stop at Niagara Falls International Airport, ran all the way to Lockport. Now, it ends at the Orleans Niagara Board of Cooperative Educational Services in Cambria.

Service on the eastern end of the route, which connected two of Niagara County’s largest population centers, was cut despite a $6.4 million increase in state funding – including a $2.6 million-increase for operating expenses – for the NFTA this year.

With that portion of the route cut, riders who want to take a Metro bus from Lockport to the Falls now have to take a bus to Buffalo and make two changes in order to get to the Falls.

That one-way trip takes roughly 3½ hours, advocates at a news conference in Hyde Park said.

Megan Dimond of Lockport said she took a Metro bus between the Falls and Lockport every day until about two weeks ago, when she moved from the Falls.

Dimond said if she hadn’t moved, she would have had to quit her job because of the route change. She was in the process of moving when notice of the route change came about two weeks ago.

“I still depend on it to be able to see my parents and my family in Niagara Falls,” Dimond said.

The NFTA’s elimination of the route segment known as Route 55L was based on financial considerations. Over a recent three-month period, the route averaged 28 riders a month, or less than one per day. The segment operated at an annual cost of $127,000.

“We are always evaluating ridership within the Metro system, and there are times when there just isn’t enough ridership to sustain a segment of a route, and unfortunately service adjustments have to be made, as is the case with the 55L,” NFTA spokesman C. Douglas Hartmayer said.

Riders have an alternative, Hartmayer said. Bus service along Rural Niagara Transportation’s Route 2 offers connections at Niagara County Community College four times per day.

State Sen. Robert G. Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, said this is the second time a significant cut in bus service has happened in the county recently. The NFTA previously announced a cut to Route 57 in North Tonawanda, although the agency says it has adjusted other nearby routes to cover the majority of what had been Route 57.

“I believe under the (Americans with Disabilities Act) that we actually have a legal – beyond a moral obligation – but a legal obligation to make sure these folks have transportation,” said Ortt, who chairs the Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Committee in the Senate.

In order to be eligible for the NFTA’s Paratransit Access Line, or PAL van service, individuals need to live within three-quarters of a mile of a regular bus route. Slashing this part of the route would jeopardize eligibility for the van service in the long term, even though the NFTA has delayed paratransit cuts until next year, Ortt said.

Hartmayer said the program will extend through March, and the two individuals who use paratransit service and are affected by the change have been were notified.

When disabled individuals lose access to transportation, they often lose their homes and wind up in subsidized housing or a community home, said Todd G. Vaarwerk, director of advocacy and public policy for Western New York Independent Living, an umbrella organization that includes Independent Living of Niagara County.

Furthermore, Vaarwerk said, they become isolated and their health declines, sometimes landing them in a nursing home. That type of care locally costs around $120,000 per person per year, far more than the cost of keeping up the bus service, he said.

“Inevitably, when this happens, we end up having to find people other housing opportunities and other employment opportunities,” he said. “There isn’t something that’s going to come in and save this unless the NFTA acts or the community does.”

Advocates said the NFTA was not required to hold a hearing on the route change because it did not involve the complete elimination of a route, only a portion of one.

Jennah and William Swygert, siblings from the Town of Lockport, said the route change means they are cut off from their father, who lives in the Falls, has physical disabilities and doesn’t have a car.

“My mom works,” Jennah Swygert said, “so if my dad needs to get out there to watch us or visit us, he really can’t because he has no other way.”