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Editorial: NFTA can study both options

The conversation about whether to extend Metro Rail to Amherst has gotten a lot more interesting now that one of its most staunch supporters has suggested taking a different tack.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, once a champion of extending the rail that currently only travels just above six miles, now says transit officials should reverse direction and focus more on the downtown core.

The head of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority says we can do both. Why not included in the study an examination of the congressman’s proposal? It doesn’t have to be one thing, or another.

That’s the right approach. The NFTA wisely went ahead with its study, but it needs to include the lost-opportunity cost of not investing more in the existing system.

Higgins, a member of the House Budget and Ways and Means committees, startled officials at the authority when he stated this week that he is reconsidering his support for the project, which he believes will cost double the projected $1 billion.

This fresh news came the day before the NFTA was set to vote to approve the nearly $5 million environmental impact study required to proceed with the project. The unanimous vote to go forward came without discussion.

Higgins brought up important points: major challenges brought on by Trump administration policy, and increased activity in the downtown corridor between the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and new development predicted for the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad Terminal.

It is true that a lot has changed downtown over the past several years. There is a resurgence. Higgins sees a shift that includes the University at Buffalo’s increased downtown presence and the prospect that the educational institution could increase its investment.

NFTA Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel, for her part, noted previous approval, albeit during Obama-era, of the Federal Transit Administration along with UB’s support for a plan to link its North, South and downtown campuses. And then there is the projected doubling of ridership to 50,000 per day.

Higgins is no longer buying the argument. The Trump administration plans to cut funding for the “New Starts” program. It was originally pegged as a primary funding source. Moreover, he said, no municipality is going to impose a tax for local funding.

The NFTA has significant support in pursuing its current path. New York State is paying the for environmental study with Buffalo Billion II funds approved last year by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. The president of Empire State Development and former NFTA chairman Howard A. Zemsky added his support in what “… will ultimately connect communities.” The Amherst town supervisor made clear again his support for the project.

Minkel talked about the separate nature of the rail extension and DL&W projects with the possibility of both remaining in the planning stages. Focusing on one over the other can also remain an option.

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