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Future of Niagara Falls' tourist shuttle may rest with Albany

The operators of the free Niagara Falls tourist shuttle want a permanent funding source.

So do local government officials in Niagara County, who support taxing hotel guests to pay for the shuttle.

But the State Legislature's consent is needed, and when the same request was made last year, the Legislature never voted on it.

Again this month, the Niagara County Legislature and the city councils in Niagara Falls and Lockport have asked for permission to increase their "bed taxes" on hotel and motel bills by one percentage point for the benefit of the Discover Niagara Shuttle.

Without the money, "we might be able to start the season, but we wouldn't be able to finish it," said Sara Capen, executive director of the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area, which operates the shuttle.

The service began in 2016. Four vehicles circulate daily from May 1 to Oct. 31 between downtown Niagara Falls and Fort Niagara in Youngstown, with 17 stops along the way.

"If it goes away, I don't see any other organization taking this on again," Capen said.

Major funders are the New York Power Authority and New York State Parks, which provide about half of the shuttle's annual $800,000 budget, she said.

The bed tax money would bring in about $600,000 a year. Combined with the NYPA and Parks money, it would be enough to fund current operations and expand service in coming years to Lockport and North Tonawanda, Capen said.

The service provided 37,562 rides in 2018, an increase of almost 3,000 from 2017 and 4,000 more than in 2016.

The shuttle was meant to help Niagara Falls tourists visit Lewiston and Youngstown, or even get around the tourist city. A 2017 survey showed 11 percent of the riders were local residents.

Capen said the NYPA contract envisions keeping the service free.

"Even if we were able to charge $1 or $5, it wouldn't make up for (the shortfall)," Capen said.

In the past, Capen asked for help from local governments and the Niagara River Greenway to keep the service going. She said she'll probably have to do that again this year while waiting for the bed tax money to start flowing.

The issue could test of the willingness of the Legislature's all-Democratic power structure to act on local requests from largely Republican areas.

Except for a slice of North Tonawanda in Democratic Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger's district, all of Niagara County's state legislators are Republicans.

Niagara Falls Assemblyman Angelo J. Morinello blamed last year's failure on the State Senate, which then was led by Republicans.

Morinello said the Assembly didn't vote on the shuttle tax measures last year because Senate leaders told them to wait, and then the Senate quit for the year without addressing those bills.

This year, "I think the chances are very good," Morinello said.

But as a member of the GOP minority, he needs help from Democrats.

"I'm going to ask some of the (Democratic) majority members who understand the tourism aspects," Morinello said.

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