Now that the conversation on whether to extend Metro Rail to Amherst is growing louder it is time to look at some realities.
Indeed, the notion of extending the rail service from the University at Buffalo’s South Campus in Buffalo to its North Campus in Amherst has gained in popularity since the 1980s and 1990s.
For various and disputed reasons, the proposal to extend the service out of downtown and into the suburbs then met with fierce opposition. More significant, funding dried up, which effectively halted any thoughts of extending the service.
Decades flew by and about seven years ago, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority started again to talk about expanding the 6.2-mile rail. That discussion was supported by an analysis finding that an extension connecting the two UB campuses would be the most logical. Earlier this year, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo supported the proposal and committed $5 million for an environmental review.
This is not misplaced enthusiasm and much of it can be seen in an article by News staff reporter Stephen T. Watson. There are still doubters – and reasons for the doubt. But there is also a reason the Metro Rail discussion has gained steam.
Largely because of the governor and his billion-dollar (now with another half-billion thrown in) commitment to this region, there has been a strong psychological turnaround. There is a sense of the possible. The new UB Medical School is taking shape on the burgeoning Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, downtown has been revived and Canalside born.
Suburban business owners can better imagine attracting millennials who might ride the rail to their stores. Working folks who have been making good use of the short ride from downtown to UB’s South Campus would appreciate stations closer to home.
Still, the reasons to recommend extending the rail extension have to be balanced by practical considerations. Those issues begin with cost and include UB student ridership, especially by out-of-town and international students without cars.
The governor’s office price tag projection comes in at $1.2 billion. The federal government would contribute $600 million and the state and local governments would pick up the rest.
That, at least, is the hope. But the preliminary federal budget released earlier this year by President Trump eliminates two funding programs, one that would help extend the rail north into Amherst and another that would help extend it south to the old Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad terminal.
There is more to consider even with the state projection that developers would build 8.4 million square feet of commercial and residential space linked to the Metro Rail extension with an assessed value of $1.7 billion. Existing properties would see their assessed values rise by $310 million.
Amherst would collect several million more in property tax revenue annually, according to the state. And there is the affiliated retail development generating millions more in sales tax revenue. All of which sounds great, but who is ultimately picking up the bill?
It is as Amherst Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein said: “You’re talking about increased assessed value all along the transit stops and asking Amherst for a contribution of the increased assessed value from their train system.”
There are factors to consider. Is extending the rail system the best use of public dollars – assuming those dollars are available – or is it better to strengthen the bus system? These questions must be carefully considered.