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Citing N.Y. City, state lawmakers push long-term funding for Metro Rail

Albany may be finally displaying some “Buffalove” for the aging Metro Rail system.

After decades of funding the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority like the rest of upstate’s bus-only systems, key state legislators now seek a five-year, $100 million program exclusively for Metro Rail’s capital needs. If successful, it would mark the Legislature’s first recognition of the money needed for the state’s only subway outside of New York City.

With Democrats now controlling all of New York State government, the legislators hope to obtain the new pot of money to repair deteriorating tracks and underground stations, 35 years after Buffalo's 6.4-mile system began running trains. And with a new focus on similar problems plaguing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s vast downstate system, area Democrats like Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan call 2019 a “crossroads for upstate transit.”

He sees an opportunity for Buffalo to piggyback on the billions destined for New York City.

“The funding we’ve given them has not kept pace with their needs,” Ryan said of the NFTA. “We’re poised to deliver a lot of money to the MTA, so we hope the upstate transit agencies will not be shy about making their needs known.”

While nobody accuses the state of ignoring bus systems in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany and other cities, the NFTA in recent years has struggled to make its case for the extra costs of running Metro Rail.

That changed for the first time last year when Ryan unsuccessfully proposed a five-year, $100 million plan; but he and the rest of the local delegation nevertheless secured $9 million for Metro Rail. The NFTA then used those funds to fix broken escalators, worn overhead catenary that supplies electrical power, deteriorating tracks and even station walls rusting away from decades of exposure to underground moisture. Ryan said at the time, however, the need persisted for a continuing and dedicated source of revenue.

Now budget politics has changed following the Democratic takeover of both legislative houses, including appointment of State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy of Buffalo as new chairman of the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He now oversees the transportation funding process apart from the governor’s budget requests, and has jumped on board the new effort to keep Metro Rail rolling.

“The NFTA has pushed for and I am advocating for funding to a level of reliability and dependability that the riders deserve and our community deserves as we make investments of billions in the MTA,” Kennedy said, adding he will make the case during budget negotiations before the April 1 adoption deadline.

Kimberley A. Minkel, NFTA executive director, noted the importance of Kennedy now leading the transportation committee and the need to fund Metro Rail apart from the fund traditionally reserved for upstate bus systems.

“It gets to the point where the system is almost fully depreciated because of age, so the replacement needs continue to grow,” she said, noting the authority has avoided fare hikes for seven years and hits a 90 percent customer satisfaction score in recent surveys.

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Minkel said Kennedy and Ryan are making the case for a multiyear funding program similar to what has always sustained the MTA. And even an annual stream of $20 million over the next five years would not fully address replacement needs of about $34 million each year, she said.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo must ultimately agree to the funding concept, but his office did not respond to a request for comment.

Ryan, meanwhile, challenged the NFTA to aggressively make its case at a critical time when MTA needs are in the spotlight.

“I will continue to advocate for more funding for the NFTA and upstate transit agencies,” he said, “and I hope to have a strong partner.”

Minkel said the NFTA is working the local legislative delegation as well as its Albany lobbyists and its advocates in the New York Public Transit Association. The group’s president, Bill Carpenter, CEO of the Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority, recently told a joint Senate and Assembly hearing that upstate transit needs more attention at a time when New York City is in the forefront.

He recommend a 10 percent increase in operating assistance for all non-MTA systems as part of a statewide plan to increase funding by 50 percent over five years.

“It is time for statewide action to address the long-term funding needs of communities across the state, so that no region is left behind,” he testified. “The last transit funding package in 2009 ignored transit riders in upstate and in the downstate suburbs. We should not make this mistake again.”

Minkel, meanwhile, noted the governor’s budget calls for almost $10 million from two separate pots of operating assistance for the NFTA, which addresses the cost of running Metro buses and trains apart from capital projects. That $10 million represents a 6.3 increase over last year’s budget.

Albany also has proposed another new approach in funding operating assistance, she said, calling for extending the current 5 percent tax on downstate auto rentals to upstate, too. Previously, upstate operating assistance stemmed from gasoline taxes which dip with more efficient engines and decreasing prices at the pump, as well as a “long lines” tax imposed on telephone users increasingly switching from landline to cellphone service.

“How many folks still have landlines?” she asked. “Those sources are diminishing, and that’s part of the challenge.”

Minkel also emphasized that a reliable stream of revenue to maintain the existing system will help the authority win federal approval for extending Metro Rail to the University at Buffalo North Campus and beyond. That $1 billion project is in the study phase and has some state funding, but faces many more hurdles before winning approval in Washington.

“It’s important for the extension because as we enter into the process of competing for federal funds, the [Federal Transit Administration] looks at the investment in our current system,” she said.

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