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Viewpoints: Don’t count on federal funding for Amherst extension

By Larry Penner

A recent News article noted that despite a dip in Metro Rail ridership, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority is seeking federal funds to extend the rail system to Amherst. This is wishful thinking.

There is already excellent frequent bus shuttle service in place connecting Amherst with other locations within the same proposed project corridor. Midlife overhaul of the existing 27-car NFTA light rail fleet is still years behind schedule and significantly over budget. There are also many LRRT cars that have yet to complete mid-life overhaul. Default of the original contractor years ago was followed by a series of change orders to the contract. This added additional engineering consultant support to supplement NFTA staff and more costs due to asbestos removal, along with increased maintenance costs for an aging fleet. The LRRT cars have been in service for 31 years. To keep the fleet running prior to completion of mid-life overhauls years later than originally anticipated will cost the NFTA millions more. Purchasing additional LRRT cars that are compatible with the existing fleet to support system expansion might also require modifications to the DL&W terminal maintenance and operations facility. Both could be significant costs.

The article noted that “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.

Completion of this work includes the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration issuing an environmental finding along with reaching agreements with the NFTA concerning proposed project budget, scope and milestones. This averages several years.

This is followed by the project being given permission by USDOT FTA to advance to the next stage known as “final engineering.” Progression of final design and engineering from 30 percent to 100 percent averages several more years. This could include review and approval by various permitting or regulatory agencies along with NFTA financial, user, operations and maintenance groups.

Successful completion of the New Starts process results in the federal government’s entering into a Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA). This third step can average several more years. It is also subject to congressional recommendation and presidential approval for inclusion of funding within future federal budgets to finance the FFGA.

There can be no FFGA without documentation that the local recipient’s (NFTA) share is in place. How will the New York State Department of Transportation and the NFTA split the local share, which will be a minimum of 50 percent ($700 million) or more? The only logical proof would be inclusion as a line item in both future New York State and NFTA annual budgets.

Given the past history of periodic NFTA financial problems, this could be a significant issue to resolve. How will the NFTA acquire millions more in annual funding to cover operational costs for the new Amherst LRRT extension? Does the NFTA have sufficient long-term funding to support both of these, along with annual upgrades and replacement of various facility components for all three Metro Bus garages and the existing LRRT system? What about ongoing replacement bus and paratransit vehicle purchases, along with future replacement of all 27 LRRT vehicles in coming years?

The proposed full-build project cost of $1.4 billion is based upon planning initiatives with little design and engineering efforts completed to date that would validate actual construction costs. Contract change orders during the course of construction could add to the final costs.

Over the next 10 years, other projects that are closer to being shovel-ready may be given preference for increasingly scarce federal New Starts funding. Dozens of other potential New Starts projects are being championed by many other 98 senators and 434 House members. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand are already on record for supporting the downstate Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s $6 billion Second Avenue Subway Phase Two and several other potential New Starts projects, each of which may cost a billion or more. The requests far exceed any available New Starts funding. There will be few winners and many losers.

Completion of a planning study is just the first step of any potential capital transportation project improvement. The journey for a project of this scope can easily take 10 or more years before becoming a reality. Given the increasing uncertainties of project financing, such as the need for $700 million or more in local funds (you can’t count on Albany to provide 100 percent of the local share) plus millions more in annual operating assistance to support new route mileage, perhaps it makes more sense to use the existing Amherst shuttle bus service to connect the University at Buffalo’s North, South and Medical School campuses rather than extending the LRRT to Amherst.

Larry Penner is a transportation historian and advocate who previously worked 31 years for the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included review and approval of NFTA capital projects from 1984 to 2014.

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