It’s getting easier to find a seat on Metro Rail these days following a significant drop in ridership.
And in a classic case of bad timing, the drop-off occurs just as transit planners are asking the federal government to extend the system to Amherst.
Lower gas prices, higher employment rates, working at home trends and construction delays are contributing to a 6.1 percent drop in Metro Rail use, according to the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. Metro Bus levels have similarly dropped 5.7 percent.
Metro Rail trips decreased from 6.5 million trips in 2012 to 4.9 million in 2016. Bus ridership has declined from 23.3 million trips in 2012 to 21.7 million trips last year. Metro Rail recorded its busiest year in 1992 with about 28,500 daily riders, compared to about 20,000 today.
Periodic repairs in the subway tunnel also contributed to the decline because several projects require single tracking that often decreases train frequency to as much as 20 minutes apart. Such periods of delay have traditionally depressed ridership.
But NFTA Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel remains optimistic about the system’s future, noting similar ridership drops nationwide and in comparable cities. The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and its limited parking will continue to attract riders, she said, as will more downtown development and activity.
“It’s too early to draw any significant conclusions,” she said, citing national drops in ridership trends and the fuel price factor. "And we’re gearing up for higher ridership when the [University at Buffalo] medical school opens,” she added.
In addition, Minkel said the 2016 figures may be a temporary blip because the trend previously pointed upward.
“When you compare 2016 to 2015, it’s down,” she said, “but it’s still higher than 2014.”
Minkel noted an approximate 5 percent ridership drop across the country. Other declines include Cleveland, 8 percent; Rochester, 7 percent; Washington, 9 percent; and Orlando (a system she deems comparable to the NFTA), 9.5 percent.
“It seems to be a trend on a national level,” she said. “Low gas prices have certainly had an effect.”
Nevertheless, the drop occurs while the NFTA competes against other transit systems around the country for federal funds to double Metro Rail’s current 6.4-mile system. The authority believes it has made a strong case in Washington for the $1.2 billion Amherst project because of the increased ridership projections resulting from linking UB’s North, South and downtown medical school campuses.
A separate, $42 million project calls for a short extension into the DL&W terminal in an effort to redevelop the complex into a waterfront attraction and provide direct access to KeyBank Center.
Both projects also were included in New York’s 2017-18 budget.
The NFTA remains confident about the extension even with a ridership dip. A study supporting the NFTA’s application to the Federal Transit Administration’s “New Starts” program predicts $1.7 billion in development along the route, an increase in current daily ridership from 20,000 to about 45,000 trips, and a $310 million increase in property values that will raise tax revenues 32 percent for the City of Buffalo and Town of Amherst.
Minkel said the federal government will judge the project on a long-term basis.
“They don’t look at just one year, but several years,” she said. “More importantly, they look at ridership potential. And our studies say we will ... double.”
An NFTA spokesman emphasized that projects like the Amherst extension must survive a multiyear, multistep process to receive funds. The initial approval for the proposal to enter the “project development” phase represents only the first step, and the Amherst project still faces myriad hurdles.
Extension prospects also are clouded by the elimination of the New Starts program as proposed by the Trump administration. But restoration efforts backed by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., are underway, and President Trump has promised significant infrastructure development programs that could enter the picture.
“I think that when we look at what the FTA has deemed successful, our project scores very well,” Minkel said. “I remain optimistic on that.”