Scale back your police department. Start charging fares to ride the downtown section of Metro Rail. And cut more bus routes.
If you do that and more, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority was told in a new state audit, you could save about $3.3 million a year.
The top-to-bottom review of the local transit agency was prompted by a 2012 financial crisis that threatened much of the Metro Bus and Rail system.
The audit by the Authorities Budget Office recognizes that the NFTA has significantly overhauled its operations in the face of declining state assistance, but it suggests even more changes, and the Transit Authority Police Department is at the top of the list.
“We found that other upstate transportation authorities do not employ their own police officers,” the report said, “but instead rely upon municipal law enforcement agencies to ensure that transit riders and authority property are safe and secure.”
The NFTA responded with a spirited defense of its practices, insisting that the auditors do not fully grasp the authority’s mission or its need to employ its own police officers.
“They directly contribute to the provision of safe transportation on the bus and rail lines,” the authority said. “In fact, in a 2001 study, safety and security ranked as the most basic need for a transportation provider.”
The NFTA also noted that no other upstate transit authority is responsible for ensuring safety for a subway system and two airports, and pointed to a consultant study commissioned two years ago that concluded charging fares on the downtown surface section would result in no appreciable return.
The authority also dug in its heels over a recommendation that janitorial services be farmed out to a private contractor. “Clean facilities are as much a part of providing transportation service as driving a bus and negotiating an airline lease,” it said.
The review was requested almost a year ago by Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo, who began raising questions about basic NFTA functions when it threatened a massive cutback in service without increased state assistance and a fare increase.
Ryan said Tuesday that his two main concerns – the lack of a permanent board chairman and the NFTA’s ownership of 384 acres of waterfront land – recently have been addressed to his satisfaction.
But he said the audit was still necessary in the face of what he called “scare tactics” that he contended the authority employed to eventually obtain a fare hike and more state operating funds.
“They’ve inflicted a lot of this on themselves,” Ryan said of the NFTA. “They’ve been guilty of mismanagement, and the board [has been guilty] of its own political missions.”
He said he is especially intrigued by the auditors’ recommendation to at least scale back NFTA police operations, maintaining that transit officers would be better used riding trains and guarding stations rather than duplicating Buffalo Police Department functions like issuing traffic tickets above ground on Main Street.
“The public has confidence when they see an NFTA officer on the subway and in the station,” he said. “Without coordination of these efforts, it just leads to duplication, and duplication is costly.”
Some of the auditors’ other recommendations include:
• Reduce or eliminate low-performing bus routes.
• Discontinue hiring part-time or retired employees without job descriptions or employment contracts to prevent duplicating the functions of full-time staff.
• Increase rates for the college pass program to fares paid by the average transit rider.
• Increase fines for fare evasion to better deter potential violators.
• Improve fine collection procedures to increase revenues.
• Re-evaluate the policy of providing unlimited free passes for NFTA employees and retirees.
• Increase lease rates charged to bus companies using the downtown Metro Transportation Center.
Kimberley A. Minkel, executive director of the NFTA, found little in the report that has not already been addressed by the authority in the past year.
Along with Chairman Howard A. Zemsky, she said many of the auditors’ findings “validate” steps the authority took to realize $7.7 million in savings, including reducing or eliminating poorly performing bus routes.
She said the new recommendations for further bus service cuts do not reflect the need to provide some service even if it does not pay for itself.
“They simplify a bit about cutting services,” she said. “We don’t cut service just because of low ridership. We have to ask if there are alternatives.”
“It’s always difficult for someone to come in from the outside for a short time and make an assessment,” she added.
In one of its most far-reaching conclusions, the auditors estimated the authority could make more than $1 million a year in additional revenue by collecting fares on the surface section of Metro Rail or, to a lesser extent, charging assessments to entities like Buffalo Place.
“Transit systems in Portland, Ore., and Seattle, Wash., have opted to eliminate their free-fare zones in recent years,” the report said. “We believe that NFTA should evaluate whether it can afford to continue providing this service.”
Minkel said a study the NFTA commissioned in 2010 concluded that instituting fares on the surface section would result in little new revenue, since most passengers would opt to walk. At least $700,000 in fare equipment would also have to be installed on the inbound line, she added.
Minkel noted that the need for a separate transit police department has frequently come up for discussion but that for almost 30 years the authority has determined that its own operation remains the most cost-effective way of providing security.
She said a 2012 proposal to merge the Transit Authority Police Department with the Erie County Sheriff’s Office was dismissed because it offered no savings and because major questions about civil service status presented impediments.
She added that although the authority studied the idea of relinquishing its airport security functions, it concluded it could not do so because of Transportation Security Administration requirements.
Minkel also noted that auditors who advocated the elimination of transit police from the airport cited shared services at the Ogdensburg International Airport in St. Lawrence County. But that airport accommodates 2,300 passengers a year compared with 5.2 million at Buffalo Niagara International.
“I don’t think that’s a fair comparison,” she said.
Minkel added that most subway systems throughout the nation employ a dedicated police force and that the auditors offered no projections for potential loss of ridership should the transit police be eliminated.
Though the auditors found no illegal or noncompliance issues, Minkel said her staff would review all the recommendations.
She was most intrigued by a suggestion that the NFTA no longer hire retired staffers in part-time positions without specific job descriptions. She said steps have already been taken to implement that suggestion.