Metro Rail extension to Amherst is more likely today than at any time since first proposed back in the 1970s now that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has announced state support for the project.
Transit commissioners are expected later this month to approve rail over express bus service following a yearlong, $1 million study.
Kimberley A. Minkel, executive director of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, said she also expects the board will adopt a route that extends underground trains more than one mile north of University Station to a point near Northtowns Plaza, where the line will resurface and proceed north along Niagara Falls Boulevard, then swing eastward on Maple Road to the University at Buffalo’s North Campus.
Cost is estimated at $1.2 billion.
Minkel noted approval of the federal government and its current 50 percent share of the cost remains an important hurdle, though the federal funding share could increase under the Trump administration's expected infrastructure initiatives. But the governor’s commitment to back the project offers the most significant milestone for the system since its original scope was pared to its current 6.4-mile length in the early 1980s, she said.
“This commitment moves from the 1970s idea to reality,” she said, noting the original concept of Metro Rail extending to UB’s North Campus.
“The timing is perfect,” she added. “Millennials are the age group we most want to attract and retain, and they look to areas with a robust transit system.”
Though the NFTA studied various forms of enhanced bus service, it will now seek federal and state funding for the 6.5-mile rail extension, bringing the total line to just under 13 miles. Minkel said the authority’s extensive public input process demonstrated a preference for rail’s “one seat” option.
“That was overwhelming from our stakeholders,” she said. “There was a lot of conversation about not getting off one vehicle and onto another. That helps from the time standpoint.”
Minkel also noted that the authority considered a Millersport Highway alternative to reach UB’s North Campus, but prefers the Niagara Falls Boulevard-Maple Road plan, though details must yet be finalized. The selected route also offers a strong economic justification, projecting a $310 million increase in property values that will raise property tax revenues 32 percent for the City of Buffalo and Town of Amherst.
Other projections include a potential $1.7 billion development or redevelopment of 864 acres along the route, and an increase of daily ridership from the current 20,000 to about 45,000, while also directly linking UB’s three campuses.
Minkel added that the study predicts significant reduction of traffic congestion, environmental benefits, lessening the need for downtown parking, reduced household transportation expenses, and the overall safety of taking public transit as opposed to driving.
The state’s embrace of the project also significantly enhances its funding chances in Washington, according to Rep. Brian Higgins, who reiterated his plans to champion any infrastructure bill the Trump administration proposes.
“There are very, very positive aspects to what the governor talked about, and now it’s incumbent on this delegation to makes these projects a reality,” Higgins said. “The needs of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus have breathed new life into the light rail rapid transit system.
“It was probably built at the time for the wrong reasons,” he added. “But this is the new Buffalo, and it could very well have relevance for the first time in its existence.”
The next step in the project’s development, to be financed by the federal and state governments, involve studying environmental considerations, cost and an exact route.
Minkel and Higgins also believe Cuomo’s inclusion of a Metro Rail extension into the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad Terminal in his State of the State message bodes well for a project expected to be finished as early as 2019 or 2020.
That $42 million project will include a new station at the DL&W terminal, where Metro Rail’s yard and shops complex is located on the ground floor. But plans call for escalators to whisk passengers to the cavernous trainshed on the second floor, which the NFTA views as ripe for development.
Adapting the terminal’s approximately 85,000 square feet on the second floor and connecting it to the adjacent KeyBank Center could result in almost $13 million worth of development, according to the study.