There have been some recent positive developments in the effort to advance this area’s transportation options. The momentum must continue.

Most recently, Sen. Charles E. Schumer successfully urged the federal government to modify a $1.2 million grant he previously secured for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. The change allows the agency to streamline its study of possible expansion by combining transportation and environmental reviews into one effort.

The rule change adds up to huge savings in money – an estimated $1 million – and time – cutting one year out of the project timetable. When Schumer won the grant for the study in October 2011, federal law required that the money be spent on both an “alternatives analysis” and an “environmental review.” Congress later consolidated these two processes, but for some reason exempted projects funded under the earlier highway bill that included the Buffalo transit study.

It was Schumer’s task to persuade the feds that the NFTA could do both studies simultaneously as it examines the possibility of extending Metro Rail to the University at Buffalo’s North Campus and beyond to the CrossPoint Business Park.

That approval to consolidate the studies gets this area closer to updating its public transportation system in a way that will strengthen the links between two of the area’s economic engines – downtown’s Medical Campus and waterfront and Amherst’s UB campus and a major office park.

The decades after the idea of extending Metro Rail was first floated have seen a growing acceptance and even encouragement by Amherst residents, town leaders, businesses and university officials. The extension would make for a much easier trip for commuters who live in the suburbs and work downtown and for city residents who work in Amherst.

The notion of expanding Metro Rail has been slow to percolate for any number of reasons – whether tinged along racial lines in a desire not to make it easier for minority young people to head to the suburbs, or just a belief that extending the six miles of rails to a total of 12.5 miles was unnecessary.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and old concerns have been muted by changing demographics. Necessity also plays a role, with the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus expecting to have 17,500 workers within five years in an area with limited parking options.

The study will examine various options, including rail. But it will also look at cheaper options such as revamped bus service or even streetcar expansion to UB’s North Campus or farther.

NFTA officials would like a “coatless” transit system that allows workers to board public transit near their homes in Amherst and travel to the Medical Campus without stepping outdoors. Thanks to Schumer, the feds have made the process of examining these possibilities much simpler.