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Editorial: State funding proposal could help Metro Rail

The Democratic majority controlling the State Legislature and, even more, the governor who controls the majority of seats on the local transit authority have the power to clear the path to funding for the five-year $100 million program exclusively set for Buffalo Metro Rail’s capital needs.

It is long overdue.

Buffalo’s 35-year-old 6.4-mile Metro Rail system is the state’s only subway outside of New York City and while rail operation here cannot compare to the Big Apple, a viable, well-maintained system is critical to any number of municipal economic plans.

Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo, has long been working on rail funding issues. He has an eager and important legislative counterpart in State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, D-Buffalo, the new chairman of the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Kennedy said he’s “advocating for funding to a level of reliability and dependability that riders deserve and our community deserves as we make investments of billions in the MTA.”

That’s good. If necessary, Kennedy should remind Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins she promised to pay attention to this region’s needs, and her claim that she listens to Kennedy.

Kimberley A. Minkel, Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority executive director, is also listening and hoping the plan goes through.

The rail line, which cost more than $600 million to build, is almost fully depreciated. The same system today would cost $1.4 billion. Just keeping up with replacement needs is about $34 million per year; to keep the system in a state of good repair is another $20 million over the next five years.

Last year, Ryan unsuccessfully proposed a five-year, $100 million plan. He and the rest of the local delegation secured $9 million for Metro Rail. An appreciative Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority used the funds to fix broken escalators, worn overhead catenary that supplies electrical power, deteriorating tracks and station walls rusting away from decades of exposure to underground moisture. Ryan remained determined to get a dedicated source of revenue.

The five-year plan is critical to the project, which would be financed with bonds. Western New York’s construction season is short, requiring the work to be done over a long period. This money is also needed to leverage federal financing to extend the rail into Amherst.

Communities score higher to get the competitive federal fund when the system is in good condition. Thus, the $100 million investment from the state will put the region in a better position to receive $500 million from Washington under the capital investment guidelines.

Many local leaders are counting on a possible expansion to the University at Buffalo North Campus and perhaps elsewhere. The $1 billion project is in the study phase with some state funding, but it needs federal assistance.

The state’s $100 million investment would carry a one-two punch, maintaining the existing system and helping to secure federal approval for extending Metro Rail.

We’re not New York City, which cannot function without its labyrinthine subway system, but we’re on the verge of something here, possibly game-changing. Making it work will require a reliable public transportation infrastructure. That’s not free.

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