For more than a year, local transit officials have warned that New York State's reluctance to adequately fund Metro Bus and Rail could result in drastic cuts in service.
Now the federal government is reinforcing Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority fears of serious financial troubles ahead, even while state officials offer little hope that new dollars will soon flow to the area.
In a new report issued by the Federal Transit Administration, Washington makes it clear that New York must substantially bolster the dollars it sends to run buses and trains in Erie and Niagara counties or face an unsustainable situation. The NFTA's $40 million project to rebuild its 27-car rail fleet also is imperiled by the shortfall, the report says.
"NFTA does not have the financial capacity to sustain existing services, is unlikely to meet its state of good repair needs over the next five years, and lacks the financial capacity to complete the light rail vehicle project as currently scheduled," federal transit officials conclude.
NFTA Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel says the budget her staff will present to the board of commissioners today will seek a 5 percent increase in the state's Surface Transit Operating Assistance program, and renewed her plea for Albany to recognize the special needs of upstate New York's largest and most comprehensive transit system.
"It really validates everything we've been saying for a while," Minkel said, pointing to zero increases in aid from the state over the past six years. "The challenge is that when the subsidy goes down, we can't maintain the same level of service."
The potential for layoffs or cutbacks within the authority has been exhausted, she emphasized, pointing out that Washington commends the NFTA for its management.
"The NFTA has managed its operations effectively and efficiently but has been hampered by zero growth in the revenue sources used to provide operating assistance," the federal report said.
Now Minkel wonders how cuts could balance the budget without catastrophic reductions in service.
"If you look at what FTA says, we're doing a good job and managing our operations effectively and efficiently," she said. "If there is low-hanging fruit, I don't know where it is."
NFTA officials say the state fails to recognize that the local transit agency also operates a subway in addition to upstate's largest bus fleet. Rochester, Syracuse and Albany, they say, only run buses.
Minkel said about $45 million in state transit operating assistance is calculated on passenger numbers and another measurement called "revenue miles." And she argues Metro Bus and Rail are faring worse than any other upstate transit agency, despite the NFTA's significantly larger operation.
While the Buffalo/Niagara Falls transit system last year received $1.56 in state aid per trip and $3.34 per revenue mile, those figures fall far below the smaller upstate systems. Rochester for example, receives $1.77 in state aid per trip and $4.50 per revenue mile. Albany gets $2.11 and $3.51, respectively, while Syracuse receives $2.20 and $5.76.
"An important distinction between us and the other upstate transit agencies is our light rail system ... and the seven to eight million passengers it carries each year," she said. "I think that somehow is getting lost."
The federal report, meanwhile, noted that state operating assistance remained essentially the same in 2012 as in 2007, while federal funds used primarily for preventive maintenance grew only 1.3 percent in the same period.
State Division of Budget officials say they believe the NFTA is treated as fairly as other upstate transit agencies and that efforts should be made to reduce expenses. They point to the one-eighth of 1 percent sales tax revenue dedicated to transit in Erie County, as well as proceeds from a mortgage recording tax and petroleum business tax — even if they have not proven to be "robust" sources of revenue in recent years.