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Higgins questions Metro Rail extension to Amherst on eve of NFTA vote

A key Washington player now questions the wisdom of extending Metro Rail to Amherst, even as transit officials are poised today to spend almost $5 million for a study beginning the process.

Rep. Brian Higgins, a member of the House Budget and Ways and Means committees, said Wednesday he is reconsidering his support for doubling the current 6.5 mile Metro Rail system and the proposed extension's more than $1 billion price tag. He predicts the study required for the long-range plan, to be voted on Thursday by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, may no longer represent the right path forward.

Citing major challenges posed by Trump administration policy, and more and more activity in the downtown corridor between the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and new development predicted for the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad Terminal at the foot of Main Street, Higgins says a change in strategy should be considered.

“I think they should study the corridor between the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and the DL&W much more aggressively than the rest of it,” Higgins said. “I just don’t see that system going out to the Amherst campus.

“Whatever the price tag is today it will probably be double by the time you put a shovel in the ground,” he added. “You’re talking $2 billion, and I don’t know if a $2 billion extension to out there makes sense.”

The congressman acknowledged his previous support of a Metro Rail extension beyond the University at Buffalo’s North Campus, and his commitment to champion the cause in Washington. But he said in light of UB’s increased downtown presence, coupled with “talk” of even more UB investment, a wiser course might be to concentrate on the proposed short extension into the DL&W and upgrading the current system to accommodate more downtown development.

He pointed to the proposed reuse of One Seneca Tower and new Medical Campus activity spurred by UB’s just-opened Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and the Oishei Children’s Hospital. Plans for extending to UB’s North Campus date to more than 40 years ago, he noted, asking if plans should now concentrate instead on the new development occurring downtown.

“We have this system now where the cars are old, slow, loud and unattractive,” he said of Metro Rail. “Maybe we should look at a new approach to what we have rather than extending to Amherst, which is sub-optimal.”

Metro Rail ridership dips as NFTA seeks Amherst extension

Higgins’ views are bound to surprise NFTA commissioners as they gather today to consider a $4.8 million contract award to WSP Inc. for the rail extension's environmental studies and preliminary design. That decision follows earlier authority approval to extend the existing light rail system for 1.1 miles underground to a portal near Eggert Road. Trains would then travel at grade along Niagara Falls Boulevard before turning onto Maple Road, then to Sweet Home Road and onto UB North Campus to Audubon Parkway, where it would terminate near the I-990.

The plan is not slated for completion until the late 2020s.

The environmental study is made possible by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s $5 million in Buffalo Billion II funding, a key move that signaled the state’s approval of the Amherst extension concept. The entire project is forecast to accommodate twice as many passengers as now use Metro Rail. Along with significant new economic development, initial studies say the approximately $1.1 billion cost could be justified. In addition, the NFTA’s initial study pointed to the importance of linking UB’s North, South and downtown campuses as key to providing the ridership and revenue needed to make an extension work.

The project would need a Washington champion, a role initially envisioned for Higgins. But in a Wednesday interview, he significantly observed that “things have changed.”

He cited the Trump administration’s 75 percent cut in the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program upon which funding hopes were pinned, as well as the TIGER grants that sponsored the "cars on Main Street" program and had been earmarked for the approximately $42 million DL&W project.

Higgins also noted the new infrastructure program presented by President Trump may still have possibilities, but its concept of seeking more private than public investment could spell trouble for big projects like the proposed Amherst extension.

Will Amherst embrace Metro rail extension this time?

Although he had not talked to authority commissioners before they vote Thursday on the study, which is a required first step, he said he will encourage the NFTA to shift the $5 million in Buffalo Billion II funds to preparing for a major upgrade of the existing system, most of which travels via subway underneath Main Street.

“Yes, proceed with the environmental study, but with the realization that the light rail rapid transit may not make it out to Amherst,” he said, saying any study should be focused on the downtown extension. “The trend should be toward a limited but substantial upgrade of the LRRT.

“I mean state-of-the-art stuff,” he added. “One need only stand on Main Street to see those cars and say they are not a pleasant experience. In Buffalo, let’s be truthful, there’s a stigma of transit being viewed as an afterthought.”

The NFTA, meanwhile, is nearing completion of a more than $40 million “mid-life rebuild” program aiming to keep its current 26-car Metro Rail fleet on the tracks for years to come.

The congressman said he envisions a new convention center linked to Statler City that would join with other downtown projects to make the current Metro Rail system even more crucial in the downtown core.

“You make the DL&W component even more important, and each day there is even more potential there,” he said. “For 40 years getting to the UB North Campus made sense. It may not make as much sense anymore.”

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