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Editorial: The benefits of extending Metro Rail will be worth taking up the challenge

Metro Rail extension to Amherst – or anywhere, really – has always seemed more fantasy than possibility. Because of the city’s resurgence and a governor committed to building on it, it might very well get done.

Now, more than in decades, there is a sense of hope in Western New York. New jobs in clean energy are coming online where steel mills once stood. The financial sector is going strong and IBM wants to bring new hires to its downtown offices. And let’s not forget the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, which will soon see an influx of students and workers.

Many of the young people who would fill those jobs expect a vibrant public transportation system to go along with their vibrant lives. They’re not typically as car crazy as their parents. Many of them are accustomed to hailing Uber almost anywhere else – even Kazakhstan. And these millennials expect their rail system to carry them farther than just Metro Rail’s 6-plus miles.

That was the plan when Metro Rail was built decades ago. That it didn’t happen should not have been a shock – the time wasn’t right. But rather than a pipe dream, call it a dream deferred.
Fast-forward to today and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s announcement of support for expansion. Transit commissioners later this month are expected to approve extending the tracks, based on a yearlong, $1 million study.

Kimberley A. Minkel, executive director of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, anticipates the board will adopt a route that extends the rails underground more than 1 mile north of University Station to near Northtown Plaza. At that point trains will surface and head north along Niagara Falls Boulevard, then east on Maple Road to the University at Buffalo’s North Campus.

The cost of the extension to UB is estimated at a whopping $1.2 billion. A much smaller project, but important to downtown, would extend Metro Rail a short distance to the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad Terminal. The $42 million effort would open up the second floor of the terminal to redevelopment. Planning for that is well underway and could be completed as early as 2019 or 2020.
Much is dependent upon federal government approval to shoulder 80 percent of the cost.

President-elect Donald Trump has said he would focus on restoring the nation’s infrastructure. Metro Rail is one of many projects that will compete for federal funding.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, will be one of the legislators pushing the Metro Rail extension project. His vow to “champion any infrastructure bill the Trump administration proposes” should give him some impact when it comes to selecting projects.

After so many years of studies and plans that went nowhere, several factors are combining to make this important project more likely. Foremost is the governor’s interest in seeing it happen, along with the need to move thousands of new workers downtown each day and the possibility of federal infrastructure money.

Buffalo is on the rebound, and improved transportation will keep it moving ahead.

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