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There may have been no better way for transit commissioners to underscore their priorities Thursday than approving the sale of outer harbor lands to two state agencies, while also unveiling a massive new project to replace Metro Rail’s aging escalators.

The decisions amounted to a renewed emphasis on the transit agency’s “core” mission, according to officials of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, as they got out of the waterfront management business that hampered finances for almost 60 years.

“The NFTA has always promised the community it would do the right thing, and the bottom line is this was not part of our core responsibilities of transportation,” Commissioner Peter G. Demakos said of the sale of 354 waterfront acres to the state parks system and the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.

Unanimous approval Thursday of the sale of the property for $1 allowed authority officials to turn their attention to moving people, especially those encountering broken down escalators in its underground Metro Rail stations. The Buffalo News detailed those problems Wednesday.

“This is very embarrassing to us, that they keep going down,” Commissioner Henry M. Sloma said while questioning the performance of maintenance contractors. “All of a sudden this is news to us? We didn’t see this coming?

“We should have known about this earlier as opposed to a catastrophic reaction.”

But Thomas George, director of surface transportation, explained problems are bound to occur after a 30-year life span and a major rehabilitation project in 1999. He also noted the system still boasts an 89 percent reliability rate that will jump to 94 percent following repairs to an escalator in University Station. Those figures rank favorably in comparison with other systems around the country, he noted.

But he said vandalism remains a major factor in deterioration of the automated stairways.

“We lose four to six escalators a day primarily due to vandalism by kids jumping on them or riding on the handrails,” he said. “It’s been an ongoing problem for years and years and years. It’s something that’s very challenging for us.”

Other officials pointed to the cold and dampness of the tunnel as well as the debris blown into by trains creating high winds – all problems never encountered at other authority facilities such as Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

George said NFTA engineers and other staff are now preparing a request for proposals that will allow the authority to approve a complete replacement program for most Metro Rail escalators in June, with an eye toward construction starting in spring 2015. The four-year project will initially concentrate on problem stations like Delavan-Canisius College and LaSalle, followed by Allen-Medical Campus.

George also said authority consultants have recommended a “significant increase” in labor and maintenance contracts for the system. Already, he said NFTA staff has enhanced its daily cleaning – and especially sanitizing – of elevators in the stations.

“We have been in cost containment mode for a long time, and perhaps we’re paying the price now,” he said.

The commissioners were able to turn their attention to transportation after selling the waterfront property.

Chairman Howard A. Zemsky summarized the authority’s decades-long effort to relinquish its outer harbor properties by pointing to the promise of responsible stewardship by New York State and preserving public access and control.

“This agreement really assures permanent public access to substantial portions of this property,” he said. “Those aspirations would not be realized under NFTA ownership.

In a key provision, the NFTA is released from all environmental claims on the land except for any willful dumping during its ownership.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced the historic transfer in September, which includes conveyance of most of the northern acres to the harbor agency while the Small Boat Harbor and Gallagher Beach fall under the aegis of state parks.

The agreement ratified Thursday calls for the NFTA to operate the Small Boat Harbor and Gallagher Beach – increasingly popular waterfront destinations – for one more summer before turning them over to the state in November.

In other business, Transit Police Chief George W. Gast told commissioners that crime throughout the Metro system has fallen for two years in a row, with decreases in arrests by 3 percent, assaults by 9 percent and larcenies (especially cell phones) by 42 percent.

He also said more than 1,200 customers have downloaded the “See Something, Say Something” app offered by the Transit Police, which allows riders to instantly convey suspicious activities to police via cell phone.

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com