Planning for Metro Rail expansion is rolling along

Jan 9, 2020

Major funding for the proposed expansion of Metro Rail was not part of Governor Cuomo's State of the State address. But as WBFO's Chris Caya reports, planning for the $1.2 billion project remains on track.


Nearly a year after work began the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority is close to wrapping up studies and plans needed for the proposed seven-mile extension of Metro Rail into Amherst. The prep work is funded by a $6 million state grant.  
    
"I think it's a tremendous investment," said NFTA Executive Director Kimberley Minkel.

Minkel says in the coming months, the Final Environmental Impact Statement will be published and the NFTA will be able to apply for a Federal Transit Administration competitive grant.

"We haven't cut service. We haven't raised fares. We've gone actually the longest period of time in the history of the agency where fares have remained constant and ridership is actually increasing or holding steady. So when you take a look at the scoring, I think we'll score well," Minkel said.

Rendering of a proposed Metro Rail station at the Boulevard Mall
Credit NFTA

If the $1.2 billion project is approved, Washington would cover half the cost and the state would be required to provide $300 million. The remaining $300 million would be split by local partners.

"I have not had a conversation with anybody from the NFTA on the county being a potential partner. It's not to say that we might not consider it," Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said.

Poloncarz says there are many billion-dollar projects across the country and the community should not be scared off by the cost. He says the county has several ways of generating capital funds.

"If we could build something like an expansion of the Metro Rail and it helps alleviate the issues of traffic and transportation, gets people to and from work, gets people to downtown, to the entertainment district, and the Sabres games, and it's there for the next hundred years, we should entertain it. We shouldn't let the dollar figure scare us," Poloncarz said.  

Amherst Supervisor Brian Kulpa supports the project, but not helping to finance it. 

"The numbers are astronomical and well beyond what the town would be able to accommodate with a bonding action," Kulpa said.

But Kulpa said he has talked to the NFTA about providing town-owned land for the project and helping in other ways.  

Metro Rail expansion study area map
Credit NFTA

"If we spent money doing a GEIS (Generic Environmental Impact Statement) on downstream sewer analysis, stuff like that, on areas that would be affected by the light rail, then we would be contributing those as in-kind contributions to the overall project," Kulpa said.

But retired Federal Transit Administration employee Larry Penner is skeptical it will ever happen. Penner spent decades reviewing grant applications and points out the NFTA's latest funding request for the DL&W building was rejected. 

"If you couldn't get $42 million for the DL&W building I think the odds are slim to none that they're going to get $600 million for the Amherst light rail system," Penner said.  

Minkel scoffed at Penner's critique saying comparing the two projects is like comparing apples and oranges.

Hal Morse, Executive Director of the Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council also isn't buying the criticism. Morse points out that the Metro Rail extension is included in the federally required Transportation Improvement Plans adopted by the GBNRTC.  
    
"If it's not in there and if it doesn't have regional consensus, it's not going forward. So that's why it's really important that they show up in plans and they demonstrate that there is consensus in the region to move forward with it," Morse said.  

The next public hearing on the project is set for February.