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After 101 years, NFTA tokens to fade into Buffalo's history

Once they jingled in commuters’ pockets along with buffalo nickels and Indian head pennies – a part of local life for more than a century.

But Metro Bus and Rail tokens are about to fade into history, right along with Iroquois beer and Your Host restaurants. After generations used the smaller-than-a-dime discs to hitch rides aboard private streetcars, then buses and then subways, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority said Tuesday it will no longer accept tokens beginning March 1.

The transit agency now looks to implement a new and computerized fare collection system later this year, relegating the low-tech tokens to something favored by the doughboys and flappers who first used them in 1918.

And while tokens may not rank atop the local nostalgia chain, the NFTA anticipates a flood of memories as it prepares to educate commuters of their impending doom.

“I used to use them all the time as a student at Canisius,” authority spokeswoman Helen Tederous said Tuesday. “They really have sentimental value for a lot of people.”

Tokens have not been sold at banks and other outlets since September of 2010, Tederous explained, though they continued to be distributed through social service agencies – granting them a reprieve for a few years from their scheduled phaseout. But the current fare collection system aboard buses and in subway stations still accepts them, and many commuters keep a stash handy even now.

Their appearance remains identical to more than five decades ago, when they first brandished the familiar “NFT” logo that stood for Niagara Frontier Transit, the private bus company that took over for firms like the International Railway Company of a century ago.

In 1918, tokens first dropped into coin boxes on the new interurban railway connecting Buffalo to Niagara Falls over a route now hosting the Tonawanda Rail Trail, Tederous said. Built at a cost of $4 million, the “high speed line” was considered the ultimate in public transportation.

By 1923, the first buses plying Bailey Avenue accepted tokens, and the NFTA continued their use when it formed as a public transit authority in 1967. They even hung around long enough to pay for one ride aboard the new Metro Rail subway in 1985.

“At one time, there were probably millions of them in the system,” Tederous said.

But now they reside mostly in the back of glove compartments and sock drawers, occasionally showing up in Metro cash collections.

Indeed, Metro tokens have lingered far longer than in other cities. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, for example, accepted its last token emblazoned with its famous “NYC” logo back in 2003.

Now the NFTA looks to a modern fare collection system expected to debut late this year, estimated to cost $22 million. Commuters will purchase cards to insert in stadium style turnstiles, retiring the old “honor” system as well as the ticket inspectors riding Metro trains since the subway’s inception. NFTA officials say that method has always worked (with a fare evasion rate of only about 3 percent), but the new cards will make purchasing rides much easier while providing transit planners with reams of commuting data they now lack.

“It will modernize the system and make it easier for people,” Tederous said, noting the new card dispensing machines will accept credit cards as well as cash, and allow prepayment for everything from a single ride to monthly passes.

Planners are also studying various app-based systems, she said, to make riding Metro buses and trains even easier.

For now, the NFTA’s immediate challenge is urging its riders to dig into their couch cushions and use the old tokens before the March 1 deadline. The authority has fashioned a “retirement” campaign for its stations and vehicles, asking commuters to pony up their tokens one last time.

Artists in other cities have used bus and subway tokens in various forms, Tederous said, suggesting the same use could pop up locally.

But it is now certain that an ubiquitous part of Western New York life is about to exit the scene.

“They have been a great part of our history,” Tederous said.

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