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NFTA backs Amherst rail extension in face of Higgins' opposition

Metro Rail’s proposed extension to Amherst survived a crucial test Thursday, even after Rep. Brian Higgins said he could no longer support the $1.2 billion proposal.

The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority unanimously, and without discussion, approved an almost $5 million environmental impact study required to proceed with the project.

But that doesn’t mean doubling the length of the current system to beyond the University at Buffalo’s North Campus will avoid a major roadblock after Higgins – a Buffalo Democrat originally viewed as the project’s Washington champion – said Wednesday he would rather see money pumped into the existing system to serve a growing downtown constituency.

NFTA Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel said after the meeting she believes the proposal still enjoys widespread community support, and that the authority needs to continue preparations even if the Trump administration is casting a wary eye on such projects.

“I think we need to be prepared and ready for when that funding becomes available,” she told reporters. “We are optimistic it will be there in the future.”

NFTA commissioners on Thursday approved a contract with WSP Inc. to study the environmental impact and begin preliminary design for extending another 1.1 miles of Metro Rail subway before it would rise above ground on Eggert Road, continuing up Niagara Falls Boulevard, and turning east on Maple Road before terminating north of the UB North Campus.

Minkel noted the previous approval of the Federal Transit Administration (under the Obama administration) as well as UB’s support for a plan to link its North, South and downtown campuses.

Indeed, she pointed out that the UB component justifies the expense by providing ridership projected to double to 50,000 riders every day.

“This is not something we are pushing onto the community,” she said. “Ultimately, if it’s something the community doesn’t want, we’ll pull back on it.”

On Wednesday, however, Higgins told The Buffalo News and later informed the NFTA he was no longer on board. He said he now thinks the current system should be upgraded after 30 years of operation before investing in an extension he predicted will double in cost to $2 billion and be ultimately rejected for federal funding.

“Planned and ongoing investments downtown and along the waterfront, including at the Medical Campus and the redevelopment of the One Seneca Tower, are exciting and are helping to turn the tide with regard to the region’s direction generally,” he said in a letter to Minkel. “Instead of taking our attention off of these ongoing efforts and focusing our investment elsewhere, we should ‘double down’ on these investments and concentrate on building up the heart of the region.”

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

He also noted the Trump administration’s plans to slash funding for the “New Starts” program originally identified as a primary funding source, and predicted no municipality is willing to impose a tax, as did Salt Lake City and Honolulu for local funding.

Higgins – whose district includes both Buffalo and Amherst – also said he favors more emphasis on the $42 million proposal well into its study phase for extending Metro Rail into the DL&W Terminal at the foot of Main Street, which he views as ripe for redevelopment.

Minkel, however, noted the separate nature of the two projects and said both can remain on the drawing board.

“We don’t see it as an either/or,” she said. “We can do both projects successfully.”

Minkel noted that as recently as mid-December she had counted Higgins as an Amherst extension supporter who would champion the project in Washington. She said she was “surprised” to learn of his change of heart late Wednesday on the eve of a vote by commissioners to further the project.

“We need his support,” she said, acknowledging concern that the congressman representing the entire project area fundamentally disagrees with the NFTA project submitted to Washington.

“I am concerned,” she said. “That’s why I want to reach out to him and have a discussion.”

Meanwhile, other key constituencies weighed in Thursday in support of the Amherst extension, including New York State, which is paying for the environmental study with Buffalo Billion II funds approved last year by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

“This is an important step in the second phase of the Buffalo Billion that will ultimately connect communities as well as Buffalo Billion investments, and provide significant economic progress through rail expansion,” said Howard A. Zemsky, president of Empire State Development and a former NFTA chairman. “Thanks to Governor Cuomo’s leadership we’re now making critical investments in projects like the light rail which will improve the overall reliability and connectivity of transportation services, as well as the upcoming DL&W station that will further enhance the region’s quality of life.”

Amherst Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa reiterated his town’s support for the project.

“Enhanced transit is important to the future of the Town of Amherst, the Town of Tonawanda, and the future of Western New York,” he said. “Enhanced transit will provide access to jobs and workforce mobility, link regional educational institutions, and support the transformation of Niagara Falls Boulevard.”

Will Amherst embrace Metro rail extension this time?

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