A recent federal government report reinforces concern over the serious financial troubles facing the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, and offers support for a fair solution.
Along with the dire warning that the “NFTA does not have the financial capacity to sustain existing services,” the report by the Federal Transit Administration makes clear that New York State must substantially increase the dollars it sends to run buses and trains in Erie and Niagara counties to put it on par with other upstate transit systems.
The Buffalo/Niagara Falls transit system last year received $1.56 in state aid per trip and $3.34 per revenue mile, far below the smaller upstate systems – none of which operates light rail rapid transit. Rochester receives $1.77 per trip and $4.50 per revenue mile; Albany $2.11 and $3.51; and Syracuse $2.20 and $5.76.
State Division of Budget officials insist, against the evidence, that the NFTA is treated as fairly as other upstate transit agencies and wants the agency to do more to trim expenses. That seems like a fair request, but NFTA Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel notes that the FTA says the NFTA is doing a good job managing operations effectively and efficiently.
Perhaps it’s time for a deeper discussion of the mishmash of funding sources the NFTA relies on. Besides the state aid, the NFTA is supported by fares, one-eighth of 1 percent of sales tax revenue in Erie County, the petroleum business tax, a tax on telephone lines and the mortgage recording tax.
Trying to cut expenses by reducing services, or increasing revenue by raising fares, ends up pushing people who have a choice away from public transit. The sales tax, at least, tends to increase over time. The petroleum, telephone and mortgage taxes are unreliable revenue streams.
The petroleum business tax is based on volume, not the price of gasoline, so as cars become more efficient and use less fuel, tax revenue goes down. The telephone tax is even worse as more and more people ditch their telephone land lines in favor of cellphones.
The mortgage recording tax has been a stagnant source of revenue over the years. The mortgage tax is one of those abatements often given away as part of the effort to lure development to the county.
Compare our situation to downstate’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which receives reliable revenue streams from taxes and fees that apply only to New York City and its suburbs.
The NFTA, the only upstate transit with a light rail system, serves well over 6 million people a year. It is expensive to operate and it makes no sense for it to be shortchanged by the state.
The state needs to adjust its aid formula to reflect the reality of the NFTA’s size and complexity.