Buffalo residents who rely on public transportation to get around say their voices are not being heard by the body which oversees their buses and light rails. A bill is being sponsored in Albany to require two transit-dependent people on transportation authority boards.
Riders joined elected officials and community activists outside the NFTA's station at the intersection of Main and Utica Streets to urge passage of such legislation, which has sponsors in both the State Senate and Assembly. An additional requirement of the legislation would be for one the two transit-dependent individuals to be para-transit dependent.
Supporters of the bill say the NFTA does include a transit-dependent person on its board now but that individual is now allowed voting power for board decisions.
"Your best allies, your best resources, are the people that ride your transit system every single day," said Victoria Guite, a regular user of the NFTA's services. "You would think that they are the people that they would want to hear from, so they would know how to implement changes and do things properly. But they're not wanting to hear us at all."
State Senator Tim Kennedy is supporting the bill in his legislative house and echoes the sentiments of many NFTA riders.
"We're talking about real people, each and every day, that utilize these transit systems to go about their business and to take care of themselves, to take care of their families and to better their lives and community," he said.
State Assemblymember Sean Ryan, who was not present at the gathering but had a representative offer remarks, is supporting the bill in his side of the legislature.
Riders shares their stories of their need for public transportation and the serious effects of delayed or canceled routes or service. Marina Akaic works two jobs. She collects tolls at the Peace Bridge and then works as a personal care aide. Even while holding two jobs, she explains that other financial priorities at home make a car unaffordable for her at this time.
"The worst hardship is when it's really cold outside and the bus is not coming," Akaic said. "Sometimes, the drivers call off and instead of getting a new driver to pick us up, we just have to wait for the next bus that comes in an hour or an hour and a half."
Her clients cannot afford such delays, she continued, and her personal care service employers do not have patience for it, either.
Andrew Marcum is employed but living with astigmatism and, thus, is unable to drive. He spoke of his reliance on public transportation not just to commute to work but for all of his living needs.
"It can be a real pain, especially if you try to take in in the evening hours and weekends where you might have significantly limited service," he said. "If you're a person with a disability who doesn't drive, and particularly if you're a person with a disability who live in one of the many group homes outside the city, you may not get any service at all on the weekends or at night."
WBFO contacted the NFTA for a response. Spokesperson Helen Tederous stated: "While the NFTA is not involved in the process of board appointments, we do recognize the importance of rider input and that is why over six years ago we created the Citizen Advisory Committee which is a diverse group that includes many riders and groups dependent upon our service. We are also proud of the diversity of our board and their dedication to our mission. Through them we have proudly achieved a 90 percent customer satisfaction rating among our Metro riders based on an independent survey of over 9,700 riders, as well as the J.D. Power number one ranking in customer satisfaction at our airport."
Riders say access to affordable public transportation is not just a necessity but, they feel, a right to help them retain employment in order to be contributing members of society. Erie County Legislature Majority Leader April Baskin revealed that as a single parent she, too, has depended on public transportation for rides to work, school, appointments, even going to church.
"It is one of the cornerstones of an equitable society and it is a conduit to jobs and educational opportunities that will lift families in our community out of poverty," Baskin said.
Representatives of local governments in both Erie and Niagara Counties were present in this rally for passage of legislation requiring two transit-dependent seats on the board. Niagara Falls Councilmember Ezra Scott traveled to Buffalo to offer a voice from the Cataract City.
"We stand here together in solidarity about the issue of transparency," he said. "It is critical that we have a para-transit dependent rider and also a captive rider of the Board of Commissioners for the NFTA so that this does not have to happen. We'll have individuals who can address the issues right then and there, and be able to make sure that the services are there for our consituents, the residents, for their daily activities and routines."