Next stop on the Metro Rail: Amherst? Over the years, Amherst residents, town leaders and businesses have been cool to proposals for an above-ground rail line that would extend from the Buffalo border into the heart of this suburban town.
But the winds of change have come to the area’s most-populous and growing suburb.
Amherst’s present leaders have been briefed on a new study for extending rail or bus service to the town, and they are – if not embracing – at least open to the idea 27 years after the line came to a screeching halt at the University at Buffalo’s South Campus.
A number of factors – from rapid growth in Amherst to rising gas prices and congestion – are different now, they say.
There’s also the fact that more than 30,000 people each weekday ride public transit in the Buffalo-to-Amherst corridor – the highest ridership in the entire system.
What’s surprising to some, though, is that this time around, no one seems to be against it.
“Back then, there was just an overall feeling that some of the suburbs didn’t want to be part of the metro area,” said former Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority Chairman Raymond F. Gallagher. “But I can see that people have softened and times are different.”
Now, Amherst leaders are interested enough in public transportation to Buffalo that they’ve pledged their full support for the $1.6 million NFTA study, which will look at rail, bus or even streetcar expansion to UB’s North Campus or farther.
These days, an Amherst rider must take a bus to the South Campus Station – or get a ride there – to catch the subway into Buffalo, and vice versa for anyone in Buffalo wanting to get into Amherst.
But despite the hassle of switching from one mode of transportation to the next and complaints by some of spotty service between the city and suburbs, ridership on public transportation has soared.
And with the continued expansion of the University at Buffalo’s North Campus and a desire of students to get downtown, officials say the number of people eager to use public transportation could grow substantially.
“People’s perception of public transit has changed, especially if you talk to young people, who are more willing to ride public transit than has been the case in decades,” said Thomas George, the NFTA’s director of surface transportation.
But students aren’t the only ones clamoring for a one-seat ride between the city and suburbs.
Amherst leaders point out the town has blossomed over the last couple of decades into what some would consider the economic center of Erie County.
These days, jobs and commerce bustle along Main Street and in the town’s office parks.
“As far as what’s changed, just look around you,” said Amherst Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein.
With all that business has come loads of traffic, which snarls at the start and finish of each workday at the big blue water tower near the Interstate 290 and Thruway interchange.
The situation could only worsen as UB inches toward its 2020 plan, which calls for more growth at its Amherst campus.
It’s also hard to get workers from the city out to jobs in the suburbs, said Guy R. Marlette, deputy supervisor of Amherst.
A few years ago, his Amherst computer company tried to hire students from the Buffalo Public Schools.
“There was no convenient way to get them to our office quickly and easily,” Marlette said. “In many cases, if you don’t have a car, it’s not an option for you for employment.”
Marlette ended up moving his business to downtown Buffalo to make it more convenient for the workers who lived in the city.
But it’s not just the suburbs that would benefit from increased transit options, planners say. Downtown Buffalo’s rebirth is also playing a role.
With more development going on than has been the case in decades, there’s a new demand for suburbanites to get downtown, for jobs at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus or leisure on the waterfront. And there’s not enough parking to accommodate all of their cars.
The reaction of suburbs to the idea of public transit has also changed.
Back in the 1980s, anti-transit citizen groups came out against plans for rail extension to Amherst, fearing that “once-gracious neighborhoods will become seedy backyards to a rail line.”
Racial tensions also played a role in the pushback, according to George K. Arthur, former president of the Buffalo Common Council.
“That was a major factor,” Arthur said. “The ridership then as well as now is from minority communities, and they didn’t want students coming back and forth. They were afraid that students would destroy their nice, quiet neighborhoods.”
Gallagher said transit officials encountered similar pushback when they expanded bus service to Cheektowaga years ago. That controversy came to a head after a black teenager was fatally stuck by a car while crossing Walden Avenue to reach her job in Walden Galleria because the mall had banned her East Side bus from its property.
While Marlette said some people still say they “don’t want the subway running through Amherst,” he and others believe attitudes have changed.
Amherst, in particular, is much more racially diverse than it was when the train was put in – and that may have opened a few minds.
“Those of us of color are not the big bad wolf that some people thought we were,” Arthur said.
Gallagher also believes people’s attitudes have changed, “and I’m sure the economy and gas prices have something to do with that.”
Attitudes alone, though, didn’t prevent Metro Rail from stretching to Amherst, Buffalo Niagara International Airport, the Tonawandas or the Southtowns three decades ago.
Money played a huge role – and is likely to again.
Original plans for a 12.5-mile rail line to Amherst were slated to cost $239 million. It ended up as a 6.4-mile line that ending up costing more than $500 million.
Gallagher said opposition to surface rail from neighborhood groups around Canisius College pushed that part of the rail system underground – the most costly option – and ate up funds that could have been used for an Amherst extension.
Transit officials will soon begin public outreach sessions and will recommend a preferred alternative – bus, rail, a combination of the two, or nothing – in 2014.
They could then apply for funds for any project through the Federal Highway Administration’s New Starts Program.
While federal transit officials have said they expect local governments to commit their own funds, that may prove a stumbling block to expanded transit to Amherst.
“We’re not in the transit business, and we’re not getting into the transit business,” said Weinstein, the Amherst supervisor. “No other local government subsidizes transit, and we’re not going to start.”