Investigative Post: Hurdles ahead for NFTA extension plans

Jul 12, 2017

The possibility of extending the Metro Rail to Amherst is as close as it’s been in 40 years. But there are still major hurdles as the next stage of planning begins. Charlotte Keith with our partners at Investigative Post explains why.

Credit Charlotte Keith

In his state of the state address earlier this year, Governor Cuomo threw his support behind the expansion plan.

“Proposal two is support the extension of Buffalo’s light rail to Amherst,” Cuomo said.

For Doug Funke, president of local advocacy group Citizens for Regional Transit, this moment has been a long time coming.

“It feels great,” Funke said. “We’ve been doing this since about 1965.”

Funke said the extension would make getting downtown from Amherst a lot easier, calling it “very efficient.”

“I think people will discover or rediscover that that’s a good way to move people around,” Funke said.

The journey would still be faster by car, though. Around 20,000 people a day ride the metro rail now, and the NFTA projects that could more than double. Around half the increase would come from UB students who currently ride the Stampede shuttle bus between campuses.

The agency also projects hundreds of millions of dollars in economic benefits from increased property values and new development around stations.

Similar promises were made back in the eighties when planning for the original line was underway. But today, empty buildings and vacant lots surround several stations. A 2007 UB study found that some stations, like Utica and Summer-Best, actually had a negative effect on nearby property values.

Amherst Town Supervisor Barry Weinstein called what happened in Buffalo “a disaster.”

“There’s no increased value, there’s no increased taxes. I don’t see how they can extrapolate that to Amherst and expect a contribution,” Weinstein said.

Transit expert Robert Paaswell, now a professor of urban planning at the City University of New York, worked on some of the studies of the original rail line. He sees it differently.

“It wasn’t the fault of the light rail which creates great access that things didn’t happen, it was the fault of poor planning and bad planning decisions that took place,” Paaswell said.

Still, experts agree that public transit by itself doesn’t create much growth. It needs support from local government and policies in place to encourage development, like rezoning around stations, subsidies for developers, and limiting the amount of new parking.

In practice, that can be difficult to accomplish. Larry Penner worked for the Federal Transit Administration region that oversees the NFTA for 31 years.

“Every local village town and city—like Amherst, for example—the local people that control the zoning process you have to have their buy-in that they support the economic development that you’re counting on,” Penner said.

The federal government would cover half the cost of construction, estimated at $1.2 billion. The hoped-for economic benefits are especially important because the NFTA is considering using increases in property value to help pay for some of its share of that.

Weinstein, the Amherst town supervisor, is skeptical.

“I think you’re being irresponsible, I think that’s unrealistic, I think it’s unreasonable,” Weinstein said.

State and local taxpayers would cover around $600 million in construction costs and an estimated $10 million a year in operating subsidies.

Paaswell said the benefits to the region could be huge—but would depend on doing things differently this time round.

“If you do as you did 30 years ago and just say we’ll put the light rail down and anybody can do whatever they want in terms of development and we’re still gonna keep the car because the car is the most critical thing—then it probably won’t be as successful as you would expect,” Paaswell said.