Mark Morgado was studying his watch one morning last week as he waited – and waited – for an inbound Metro Rail train at the LaSalle station so that he could get to his job on the Medical Campus. He would have to wait another 20 minutes.
“I just missed the 8:38, and now I’ll be late for work,” he groused. “If this keeps happening, it’s not worth it. Even with the price of gas, I guess I’ll just drive.”
This wasn’t the first time or the only disappointed rider.
Thousands of other Metro Rail commuters are expressing the same frustration in recent months as construction along the rail line in downtown Buffalo has wreaked havoc with regular schedules along the 6.4-mile line. The construction will allow for both cars and trains to share Main Street.
But for now, fewer passengers are taking the rail line because of the train delays and frustration. An average of between 4,000 and 5,000 passengers per day are shunning the system since the Main Street project began last spring – down almost 25 percent, according to officials of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.
The construction has caused frequency of the trains to stretch from 12 minutes to 20 minutes as trains squeeze through one track in the Main Street construction zone.
“The 20-minute headways have really pushed a lot of people away,” Thomas George, NFTA director of surface transportation, recently told authority commissioners.
And with more work slated for next year that will again require closing one above-ground track, Metro Rail officials worry that those riders who have left will not return.
“We have some major challenges in the future to get them back,” George said.
The significant drop in rail ridership occurs at an inopportune time for the NFTA, as the surge in new jobs at the downtown Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus offers a chance for the subway to ferry many more commuters back and forth to work each day.
With new housing construction planned near subway stations for Medical Campus workers using Metro Rail, and with parking limited on the campus, the system is predicted to assume a vital transportation role in the city’s future. In fact, ridership was rising before the Main Street project began.
Morgado fits the profile of the new Metro Rail commuter.
An information technology specialist at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, the Clarence resident has been buying monthly passes that the Medical Campus promoted. He says he would rather park in the LaSalle lot than drive downtown, because the subway is “more direct.”
“But the 20-minute trains are killing me,” he said.
NFTA Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel acknowledges the problem facing Metro Rail. But while ridership has fallen from 21,000 daily riders to about 16,000, she says the authority has not noticed a corresponding reduction in revenue.
That leads her to surmise that much of the ridership loss occurs on the free fare zone, where more people are walking rather than wait.
“If I had to hazard a guess, and this is based only on two months of data, it’s mostly people in the free fare zone,” she said. “With 20-minute headways, I may walk to Church Street.
“I’m not comfortable saying these riders are lost for good based on two months of data,” she added.
Minkel said the NFTA initially added buses to the Main Street route above the subway and lengthened trains to four cars to relieve projected overcrowding on the less-frequent trains. But trains were not overcrowded, she said, and the extra buses were discontinued.
Less frequency equates to fewer riders, she said, and the problem was inevitable because the system had to make the same schedule changes eventaully, since major maintenance was needed on the surface portion anyway.
Other factors have also contributed to fewer riders, authority officials say, including the elimination of transfers from buses feeding into Metro Rail. Riders on buses and the subway must now pay separate fares. And though the NFTA has promoted use of daily or monthly passes (allowing unlimited rides) to compensate, Minkel said the end of free transfers also contributed to a decline in passengers.
She also said Metro Rail is unable to run a separate schedule underground because of the lack of required “crossovers.”
Ridership has slightly declined on Metro Rail from its inauguration almost 30 years ago and a high of about 27,000 daily riders, mainly because of region’s population loss.
When federal funding for construction was sought in the late 1970s, the projections were for 40,000 daily riders.
But the line still boasts the third highest density per mile of any U.S. light rail system.
And ridership is projected to grow as employment grows at the Medical Campus and the Allen-Medical Campus Station becomes integrated with the new University at Buffalo Medical School in 2016 (Ground breaking is set for Tuesday).
The downtown construction project will end for the season in November, allowing for resumption of regular Metro Rail schedules until April. That’s when the 20-minute headways will begin again as Main Street construction continues.
But when April arrives, Morgado may be among those contributing to the lower numbers aboard Metro Rail.
“Maybe I’ll put up with this in the meantime,” he said, “but come April, I’ll probably cancel my pass.”