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UB puts brakes on 'drunk bus'

Residents in the University Heights neighborhood call it the drunk bus. Or more derisively, the vomit comet.

A shuttle bus picks up dozens of undergraduate students outside their North Campus dormitories and drops them at a stop on South Campus, where they promptly fan into the streets in search of house parties.

Every 10 minutes, another bus arrives, dropping off more students late at night on a Friday or Saturday. Some bring plastic bottles of what appears to be water, but actually is vodka. In all, more than 1,000 students disembark from the shuttles on a given weekend night. And chaos ensues: noise, rowdiness, vandalism, fights and public urination.

Life for neighbors is not pleasant.

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But  facing heavy criticism from residents for ignoring the problem, officials at the University at Buffalo said this week announced they are revamping the shuttle schedule in an effort to put the brakes on the drunk bus.

The frequent late-night weekend shuttles between the North Campus residence halls and South Campus will be discontinued. UB will still offer 24-hour bus service between the two campuses. But the buses will run only every half hour from the Flint Road loop, near the academic spine of North Campus, to accommodate students who work, study or use laboratories late at night and early in the morning.

"I feel good about it. It shows me they’re serious and they're trying," said Mickey Vertino, president of the University Heights Collaborative, an umbrella organization of neighborhood block clubs. "It took years to get to this point. In the past, UB has refused to make any moves on it."

Rasheed N.C. Wyatt, University District Common Council member, also was optimistic that the changes will help deter students from seeking out house parties en masse.

"I'm giving UB credit for at least taking a hard look and a different approach to addressing it," said Wyatt. "If nothing else they put in a good faith effort."

Residents have been pushing the university for years to eliminate late-night busing altogether, and some area homeowners said the route changes won't have much impact.

"They'll just walk over to wherever they need to get the shuttle. It's just ludicrous," said Ann Lupo. "The first thing that popped into my mind was rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."

Lupo, who lives on Nicholson Street, said she doesn't understand why UB continues to facilitate any transportation for students to find house parties and other entertainment.

Another resident, Fred Brace, who lives on Niagara Falls Boulevard, also was skeptical. Brace said he will watch closely when the fall semester begins Aug. 28.

"I use the term coined by Ronald Reagan: 'Trust but verify.' I'll believe it when I see it," he said.

Brace said the situation in University Heights did improve last year, but he attributed it to aggressive law enforcement and follow through in city court, not anything the university did.

Brace and other residents also credited State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman's settlement earlier this year with landlord Jeremy Dunn, who owns more than 50 properties in University Heights. Dunn's properties were notorious for hosting house parties attended by hundreds of students, including underage drinkers. Under a consent decree, Dunn must prohibit tenants from hosting parties of more than 40 people or face severe fines.

Vertino said the University Heights Collaborative also has worked to improve relationships with students who live in University Heights. He convinced UB officials to refer students with university judicial code violations to the Collaborative for their community service work.

"Some of the students who were part of the problem are now part of the solution," he said.

Buffalo police will again have a strong presence in University Heights during the first few weeks of the fall semester, said Wyatt.

But Wyatt said he doesn't expect the level of mayhem that's happened in previous years. Most students in University Heights are good neighbors, he added.

"It's just that small minority who are a little bit disrespectful to residents and we want to curb that," he said. "Having the police presence, we hope to minimize those issues."

University officials last year scaled back from six UB Stampede buses on weekend night to three buses, limiting runs between the residence halls and South Campus to every 20 minutes, instead of 10 minutes. The university also began offering new routes to alternative entertainment sites, such as Transit and Maple roads in Amherst and Walden Avenue in Cheektowaga.

But the changes failed to curb the influx of partygoers to University Heights, and neighborhood complaints continued.

Tweaks to where the buses depart from North Campus should help curb some of the venturing into University Heights for house parties, but administrators acknowledged it likely won't eliminate it.

"At the end of the day, if people want to do something, they're going to find a way to do it," said Laura Hubbard, vice president for finance and administration. "We'll see how this changes that dynamic."

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Steering students away from house parties requires a variety of strategies that the university is working on, she added.

Hubbard said the university evaluates its bus scheduling each year and makes adjustments based on ridership numbers and feedback from riders. Administrators also had ongoing discussions with members of the University Heights community, she said.

The new schedule expands bus service to late-night events and programming in the Student Union on North Campus.

"We want to help them get to those venues," said Hubbard. Saturday night routes to Walden Galleria Mall and other stops on Walden Avenue also will continue.

While bus service will be reduced, the fall semester will mark the first availability to students of ride-sharing by private companies Uber and Lyft, which have been popular modes of transport among technologically savvy young people in other markets. University officials said the introduction of Uber and Lyft into Western New York did not have any bearing on their decision to revamp the bus schedule.


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