A new report on the business practices of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority offers a number of recommendations for improving the authority’s bottom line, and while many of them are worth considering, one should be a last resort. It would be a shame to end the above-ground free zone on the Metro Rail, especially given a report two years ago concluding that adding those charges would produce no appreciable return.
The audit was produced by the Authorities Budget Office at the request of Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo, in response to the NFTA’s plan for cutbacks in service if it didn’t receive increased state aid and a fare increase.
Two of Ryan’s concerns – the lack of a permanent board chairman and the NFTA’s ownership of 384 acres of waterfront land – have been addressed recently. Buffalo developer Howard Zemsky has been appointed board chairman and the NFTA is in the process of selling the waterfront land to the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.
But the report cited several other potential changes, including eliminating the free zone on the Metro Rail and, more intriguingly, scaling back or eliminating the Transit Authority Police Department. NFTA leaders insist that the police force is critical to their operations and that while other upstate cities have no separate transit police, they also don’t have the breadth of responsibility that the NFTA does: two airports, a rail line and a bus system.
Even still, the idea is worth exploring. The bottom line has to be the safety of passengers and the security of the system, but we’re not sure that couldn’t be handled by the Buffalo Police Department and, for the airports, Cheektowaga and Niagara Falls.
They might require an infusion of staff to those agencies, which could come from the ranks of the NFTA police, but the result could be a more efficient use of manpower and one less agency for taxpayers to support. Another alternative is to focus NFTA officers on trains, rail stations and perhaps other NFTA property, instead of having them duplicate Buffalo police functions such as issuing traffic tickets.
The NFTA seems oddly resistant even to considering the recommendations of the board. In response to a suggestion that it contract out its janitorial services to a private company, the authority issued a non-sequitur: “Clean facilities are as much a part of providing transportation service as driving a bus and negotiating an airline lease.”
No one would disagree. The question isn’t whether NFTA facilities should be clean, but whether a private company could do the job at a savings to the NFTA. What’s the downside of checking it out?
Other recommendations include reducing or eliminating low-performing bus routes, discontinuing hiring part-time or retired employees without job descriptions or employment contracts, increasing rates for the college pass program to fares paid by the average transit rider, increasing fines for fare evasion, improving fine collection procedures to increase revenues and increasing lease rates charged to bus companies using the downtown Metro Transportation Center.
The NFTA should take a step back, thank the Authorities Budget Office for the ideas and take a close look at what makes sense in a time of dwindling resources.