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Costs, competition could mean rapid buses instead of Metro Rail extension to UB

The region's half-century-old vision of a light rail system extending from downtown to the University at Buffalo's North Campus may be facing a setback.

The Federal Transit Administration has directed the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority to take a second look at a "bus rapid transit" option centering around priority buses and a much lower price tag than the $1 billion estimated for extending Metro Rail.

While the federal agency that approves such projects has embraced the basic concept of upgrading mass transit through Amherst, it is now imposing a step backward in the seven-year rail extension effort by also urging study of the bus rapid transit concept that the NFTA has already rejected.

NFTA officials emphasize that extending Metro Rail almost seven miles to UB-North via Niagara Falls Boulevard and Maple Road remains a viable option that could still gain federal approval. They also note FTA now becomes the "lead agency" to guide the project through the federal bureaucracy, allowing for required environmental studies and a path to eventual funding.

Federal sources, meanwhile, point out that localities decide what transit mode they will ultimately pursue. They also note that federal environmental review guidelines require the NFTA to include bus rapid transit, even though its initial study selected rail.

But the NFTA acknowledges that rail's hefty cost in a Covid-19 era and stiff competition from bigger cities present daunting obstacles.

"The world has changed, and we don't know what funding will be available to us in the future," said Kimberley A. Minkel, the NFTA's executive director, adding the authority still hopes the Trump administration will eventually implement a long-promised infrastructure improvement program that would fund a rail extension.

"If not, we have transit options in that corridor that meet the needs of the community," she added.

The new federal requirements may serve as a "reality check," according to Lawrence W. Penner, a Long Island transportation advocate who worked with the NFTA for many of his 31 years with FTA.

"The fact that the FTA has asked them to go back and look at bus rapid transit is a red flag that the FTA is not sold on light rail," the expert said. "It tells me they are hinting to NFTA to get their feet firmly on the ground and look at an alternative that is more feasible.

"FTA is saying bus rapid transit is far more realistic and could be completed far more quickly," he added.

Minkel emphasized that the FTA's agreement to sponsor some type of enhanced transit in the "Amherst corridor" validates plans the NFTA has presented to the community through a series of public meetings. The process has been ongoing since 2013, when the authority resurrected the idea of a Metro Rail extension for the first time since studies were last conducted in 2000 and then shelved.

After the latest two-year study phase, the NFTA chose rail over bus, citing the attraction of a "one-seat ride" that precluded the need to transfer from bus to rail or rail to bus to get from Buffalo to Amherst or vice versa. It estimated that ridership would more than double with an additional 24,000 daily passengers, hinging on UB students and staff connecting with North, South and downtown campuses.

A $1 million study supporting the project's inclusion in FTA's “New Starts” program predicted $1.7 billion in development along the entire route from downtown to Amherst, an increase in daily ridership from 20,000 to about 45,000 trips, and a $310 million increase in nearby property values that would raise tax revenues 32% for Buffalo and Amherst.

But Washington now asks the NFTA to look at bus rapid transit as well as the formality of a "no build" option – which would result in no efforts along the heavily traveled corridor.

"I can't imagine that would be their finding," Minkel said of the plan to do nothing.

She noted the rail plan has consistently scored well in all applications for federal funding, and found widespread community acceptance. Bus rapid transit was initially rejected, she added, because it would not attract nearly as many new passengers as rail.

But she said similar rail projects have been submitted by many other cities across the nation, creating a fierce scramble for limited resources.

"Certainly there is a lot of competition for these projects with limited funds," she said. "While the preference has been for light rail transit, bus rapid transit has been very successful. It operates exactly like light rail, it just changes the vehicle type."

The Metro Rail option would have required about half a mile of underground tunnel extension from University Station to a point near the Northtown Plaza in Amherst. It would then serve several above-ground stations along Niagara Falls Boulevard, before turning east for stations on Maple Road, UB North and beyond to a business park north of the campus.

The project's investment in light rail cars, track, stations, signals and a new northern terminus yard would prove significantly higher than bus rapid transit or another rejected plan called "enhanced busing." Under bus rapid transit, buses (possibly extra long, jointed models or even electric vehicles) would operate on the same route with the same stations in a dedicated lane with priority signals, though some bridges or tunnels might prove necessary.

"The advantage is that it would be cheaper and quicker to build," Minkel said. "But you can't move as many people as quickly, and you lose the one-seat ride."

She said the NFTA will now fulfill required environmental impact studies for rail, bus and no-build options, following a similar state-ordered study that delivered favorable results for rail. If successful, the environmental review would allow the NFTA to apply for a "project development" stage that will recommend funding for bus, rail, a combination of both – or nothing.

Minkel said even if Washington eventually approves a rail project, she would envision no construction until 2026 and no service until 2030. Rapid bus service would arrive significantly sooner.

Amherst Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa has always favored enhanced transit in his town, the fourth largest municipality in upstate New York. But he said last week he was never committed to rail because of concerns over cost, speed and noise.

"It would require these big sweeping turns for four cars at 40 mph," he said. "I would assume buses don't have to do that, and they wouldn't sound like thunder moving down the rails."

He said if any system can service new development planned for the Boulevard Mall, the North Campus and the town's municipal center at Audubon, then he's in favor.

"I can see that the NFTA might consider it a step back, but my priority has always been transit connectivity and transit connections," said Kulpa, who holds a master's degree in architecture and urban planning from UB. "Just give me transit."

The authority contends it has presented a strong case to the federal government for money to build a system linking the city and suburbs, citing increased traffic and development in Amherst, a continuing desire for service to new downtown facilities, and the need to link the various UB campuses.

Indeed, the UB component has always been considered key to the entire project. The NFTA's earlier study showed a dramatic increase in ridership if UB dropped its “Stampede” buses in favor of Metro Rail to transport students among the three campuses. Only about 10,000 or 11,000 new riders would result without UB’s cooperation, the study showed.

“If the Stampede bus stays, there’s no sense in us making this investment,” Minkel said of rail in 2015, noting that authority officials identified UB's interest in frequency, capacity and transit time.

Laura E. Hubbard, UB's vice president for finance and administration, as far back as 2015 noted the university's support of enhanced service and its reluctance to run its own transportation system despite its necessity. She would not consent to an interview about whether a bus priority system would prove better for UB than its own bus service, but in a statement noted the university's continued interest.

"We continue to work with NFTA to look for any way we can improve the transportation systems to meet the needs of our campus community," she said, "including replacing our current system with other options if that best meets those needs."

Another influential voice in the process will be Rep. Brian Higgins, who represents Amherst and Buffalo in Congress. But after initially backing rail extension, Democrat Higgins in 2018 said he no longer favored the concept and instead looks for improvements in the existing 6.4-mile Metro Rail system.

He also would only issue a written statement about the newest development that did not address questions about bus rapid transit.

"The ... review process is a necessary component of federal transportation projects," Higgins said. "I support this project and am eager to see the review process fulfilled, so we as a community are ready for construction when Congress advances a much-needed infrastructure package.”

Penner, the retired FTA veteran, said his general experience with such projects and his specific knowledge of the NFTA casts long shot status on any attempt to extend Metro Rail for the foreseeable future.

"Millions more will be needed for annual operating assistance to support the new route mileage," he said, expressing doubt about any state role. "The existing Amherst shuttle bus service connecting University of Buffalo's North, South and Medical School campuses to Amherst continues to make more sense rather than extending the light rail rapid transit."

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