Plodding along Niagara Street on the No. 5 Metro Bus these days hardly qualifies as the ultimate commuting experience.
The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority is about to change all that.
A $4.5 million plan getting under way later this year will transform one of Metro’s busiest bus routes into a modern and efficient commuter corridor as part of a larger project for smart technology buses.
When the No. 5 project is completed in 2015, commuters will benefit from:
• Traffic signal synchronization to enhance bus flow and timing.
• Bus shelters with electronic signs notifying commuters of the next arrival.
• A neighborhood transit center with a park-and-ride lot and bus-holding spaces at the confluence of Route No. 5 with several other major transit lanes.
• Purchase of five new compressed natural gas, 40-foot buses to carry passengers.
The aim is to attract commuters to Metro Bus with quicker runs and better equipped shelters – some even with heaters – to make the experience as pleasant as possible.
“We deem this route a high-quality transit corridor; one of our busiest,” said Thomas George, the NFTA’s director of surface transportation. “We’re trying to enhance the rider experience and make it more efficient. That means improving timeliness and reliability, and providing a higher level of amenities.”
A new generation of riders, he added, demands a new generation of transit technology and information.
“They want every bit of information possible – 10 minutes ago,” he said.
The new program stems from the NFTA’s success in obtaining 80 percent of the project cost from competitive grants offered by the federal government. New York State will pay for 10 percent of the project and the NFTA the other 10 percent. The city portion of the project is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
When it’s all done, riders will come the closest they can to a transit route totally dedicated to the bus.
“The most exciting part for me is traffic signal prioritization,” said NFTA Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel. “Our biggest competition is not cost, but time. If we always have the green light, now we can compete with the time issue and attract more riders.”
George explained that as a Metro bus on the new No. 5 route approaches an intersection, it will electronically send a signal to extend the green light. That will allow Metro to develop faster runs that also will increase the chances of being on schedule.
“The key part is being on time,” he said. “Early is worse.”
Another important aspect of the plan is purchase of five natural gas-powered buses at approximately $500,000 each, serving as the vanguard of many more of the highly efficient vehicles for the NFTA,
Several new shelters will feature electronic signs flashing the arrival time of the next bus, similar to some of the Rochester bus system’s busiest stations. Like signal synchronizations, a transponder aboard the vehicle will transmit that information to a receiver in the solar-powered shelter.
Enhanced, solar-powered shelters are under study along Niagara Street at the intersections of Carolina, Hudson, Ferry and Delavan, though no definite plans have been determined, said NFTA spokesman C. Douglas Hartmayer.
In addition, a major transit center is set tentatively for somewhere in the Riverside area that would serve Routes 3, 5, 23, 32, 35 and 40.
“For that, we want access to pedestrians, bikes and the Niagara Thruway,” George said. “We’ll have a site selection process, and then identify a site in that area.”
Plans call for the public involvement and design phase to kick off this year, with construction of the enhanced bus shelter and park and ride set to begin in April 2014.
“The study will show us ridership tendencies to determine where the amenities will go and best serve our customers,” Hartmayer said.
New shelters, new buses and traffic signal prioritization will be completed by March 2015, he added.
“Once this is deployed successfully,” George said, “the only question is what corridor is next.”
The transit portion of the project is part of an even wider $10.62 million plan to enhance the Niagara Street corridor involving the City of Buffalo and the Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council.
Although the federal money for the project has been awarded, it has not yet been officially “obligated” by the federal government to the NFTA, though officials are not anticipating any glitches in the process.