The undertaking of any large project requires an openness to change. The change presented by transit planners for a proposed Metro Rail extension looks like a good one, offering the possibility of cost savings, along with increased economic opportunity and better service.
Plans by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority now call for northbound trains to exit University Station directly to Niagara Falls Boulevard as opposed to running beneath Bailey Avenue. It’s all part of the approximately 7-mile extension planned to the University at Buffalo’s North Campus and, hopefully, beyond.
The new plans also call for trains to travel under Kenmore Avenue, emerging on Niagara Falls Boulevard just north of Kenilworth Avenue. Previous plans called for the rail to surface above ground through a portal near Northtowns Plaza.
The changes, at first glance, appears to serve the community better while cutting costs by about $200 million. NFTA Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel indicated the revised plans would now cost about $1 billion. The previous price tag came in at about $1.2 billion in 2014 dollars. The reason for the decrease is due to the reduction of subway tunnel from almost 10,000 linear feet to about 3,900.
There would no longer be a need for a new underground station below Bailey Avenue and no need for the use of “a complicated and expensive boring machine to build the longer tunnel.” As The News’ Robert J. McCarthy wrote, crews can “cut and cover,” a less costly method of construction which was used on parts of the original Metro Rail project in the 1980s.
Providing even more enthusiasm for the project is the reaction being generated by other municipalities. Minkel indicated the spark for the new route comes from the towns of Amherst and Tonawanda, as officials realized economic development potential from new transit options along Niagara Falls Boulevard.
Tonawanda Supervisor Joseph H. Emminger spoke enthusiastically for officials of both towns about the benefits of a rail project expected, as noted, to double ridership of the current system and link UB’s north, south and city campuses.
He said that officials always wanted the rail “on the boulevard sooner.” The supervisor sees the potential to energize the Kenilworth neighborhood, even adding the idea of retail with light rail rapid transit humming along the street. It could happen.
Extending the 6.4-mile Metro Rail should win easy support, as it would continue the downtown resurgence and carry it out to towns that could use the exposure. Ridership may not be at a peak but that could be the result of current limited choices.
Not everyone is on board. Rep. Brian Higgins no longer supports expansion to Amherst and has expressed his belief that the project will eventually cost more, possibly $2 billion. It is a position supported by some transit experts. Instead, Higgins has said he believes activity will increase of the downtown corridor between the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and the new hoped-for development at the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad Terminal at the foot of Main Street.
Nevertheless, a $1 million study supports the transit authority’s application to the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program. It estimated $1.7 billion in development along the entire route from downtown to Amherst, and predicted an increase in daily ridership to about 45,000 from 20,000. Add to that the projected $310 million increase in nearby property values, raising tax revenues 32 percent for Buffalo and Amherst. Another study of development potential along the proposed new path is also in the works.
Now the project manager for the NFTA said those numbers could increase because of the route shift, which now includes Tonawanda.
Minkel’s “optimistic” target – if all funding approvals are obtained – of late 2024 or early 2025 to start construction cannot come too soon.