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Niagara Street project makes commute easier, faster for bus riders

Waiting at the bus stop takes on a whole new dimension this week with the debut of a new hub at Niagara and Ontario streets, featuring vast improvements for passengers riding one of Buffalo’s busiest transit corridors.

Raining outside? Plenty of room under an expanded shelter.

Cold enough for you? Radiant heating now warms your wait for the next Metro Bus.

Late for work? Synchronized signals along Niagara Street will speed your commute downtown.

And wondering when that next bus will finally arrive? Electronic signs announce just how long it will take.

It may all look like just a fancy bus stop, but the new “transit hub” in the city’s Riverside section represents the latest in technology for Metro Bus and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

It also coincides with an $11 million upgrade to the Niagara Street corridor now underway and sponsored by the City of Buffalo.

The $4.5 million transit project, which includes five new compressed natural gas buses for the hub’s routes, converges five of the system’s busiest routes in an area of the city that continues to show ridership growth.

“The routes were here before, but without a central hub,” said Thomas R. George, the NFTA’s director of public transit. “We’ve brought the routes together to provide access throughout the system. And what better place than the West Side where there are a lot of people who are transit dependent?”

NFTA data shows a 39 percent ridership increase over the past five years – now totaling 6,500 daily commuters – along the Niagara Street corridor. Metro Bus runs at 10-minute intervals (allowing less dependence on paper schedules) along Niagara Street during peak hours, ranking as the system’s second-busiest route after the No. 3 Grant Street bus.

George said the significant immigrant community settling on the West Side in recent years has contributed to the steady growth.

“Transit assists with this new development,” he said.

The hub concept is important because it provides that transit-dependent community and all Metro Bus riders better access throughout the region, George explained.

“From this hub you can reach Niagara Falls, downtown, UB’s North and South campuses, the Walden Galleria mall, Boulevard Mall and Buffalo State College,” he said. “You can even get to your new job at SolarCity.”

For Metro riders, some of the new features will prove noticeable – especially electronic signs that announce arrival of the next bus, or even when specific buses will arrive. That technology has already debuted at the Abbott-Bailey loop, at Portage Road in Niagara Falls, and at University Station.

While the expanded shelter will not be fully enclosed, George said, it will be heated. And electronic billboards will display community announcements as a result of input received from neighborhood groups. A park-and-ride lot is also included.

An intangible but important improvement, however, will be “transit system priority” technology that provides more timely departures from the stop. And the signal light synchronization being gradually implemented along Niagara Street allows for buses to get a green light more often.

“If the bus is behind schedule, it has the ability to extend the green time on the signal and get through the intersection to the next stop,” George said. “It allows for a better schedule to develop and a more timely transit system. It will be faster and more reliable.”

The NFTA will also explore implementing more express routes that stop only at some shelters as a result of the new technology, he added, to make the bus an alternative to private cars.

“At the end of the day, that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said, “be more competitive with cars.”

The NFTA project coincides with the city’s simultaneous effort that will introduce not only synchronized signals from South Elmwood Avenue to the Ontario Street hub, but eventually include new curbs, lighting, benches and a whole new “streetscape.”

“It really enhances the entire community,” said Steven J. Stepniak, Buffalo’s commissioner of public works.

The main focus, he said, will be linking dozens of signal lights to the Metro Bus project. Phase One is under way now from South Elmwood to Virginia Street and will be completed in the spring. Phase Two from Virginia to Porter Avenue will be finished in 2017, while Phases Three and Four will finish up in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

Stepniak noted the bus and street projects arrive just as the Niagara Street corridor benefits from millions in private development as several old warehouses and other buildings – including the former Bison Storage & Warehouse and the onetime Mentholatum Co. headquarters – are converted into condominiums and apartments.

“It’s a great project,” he said. “The bus project plus the reconstruction are contributing to the resurgence, and that’s exciting.”