NY: NFTA Softens the Blow; Transit Authority Listens to Riders, Rejects Fare Hike to Close Budget Gap

Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority commissioners made the best of a bad set of options in voting to drop several money-losing routes and reduce frequency of bus service and possibly rail service in order to close this year's $14.7 million budget gap.

The moves, unanimously approved, will save $7 million. Other savings, including 50 layoffs and closing one bus garage, plug the rest of the budget hole that could have resulted in a 25-cent fare hike.

The choice was difficult: either cut back on routes and reduce the frequency of bus service, or raise fares from $1.75 to $2 and still have to cut back on some underperforming routes. The riders spoke out at hearings and said they were none too pleased at the thought of a fare increase during these economically difficult times. Today, even a few quarters can be too much for a struggling family reliant on public transportation to get to and from work, medical appointments and errands.

In fact, 84 percent of Metro riders who use the system do so to get work, and studies show that 77 percent of Metro riders do not own a car. Many riders will be inconvenienced, to say the least, by the reduced schedules. NFTA officials and commissioners have expressed heartfelt concern for their customers, especially "reverse commuters," city residents with jobs in the suburbs who may have to find other ways to get to work or significantly rearrange their schedules.

But the alternative, raising the bus fare, simply isn't palatable for riders.

The public transportation system here is dealing with problems similar to those facing other transit systems around the country in which a tough economy has led to increased ridership but decreased operating aid from governments. In the NFTA's case, state aid is down to $42 million from around $45.7 million three years ago.

Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, is absolutely on message in seeking another $10 million from the state. She points out that the recent state tax and budget deal provides an extra $250 million for the downstate Metropolitan Transportation Authority. In comparison, $10 million for the NFTA is a paltry sum.

Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel has suggested that the NFTA is looking at more than just fare hikes and route cuts to balance the books. Innovations in health insurance, locking in current prices for diesel fuel as a hedge against increases and investing in new fuel-efficient buses can help down the road.

Additional help can come from enhanced concession revenue at Buffalo Niagara International Airport and doubled parking fees at Niagara Falls International Airport.

NFTA commissioners are expected to formally adopt the changes at their Dec. 19 meeting. Public hearings have to be held starting in January before the new budget takes effect April 1.

While plugging the hole in the NFTA's budget will make life a little harder for riders, the authority has no choice but to operate within its means.