As much as we appreciate all the governor has done for this area in so many ways, not the least of which is the Buffalo Billion, we have to point out that the proposed 1.35 percent increase in assistance for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority falls far short of the need and what is fair.
The budget proposal includes only a $605,000 increase for the NFTA. It is, in essence, a rejection of the agency’s plea for a 5 percent increase to help deal with the expense of running a light rail system.
The governor’s proposal ignores a warning by the Federal Transit Administration that the 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 in 2012 received $1.56 in state aid per trip and $3.34 per revenue mile, far below the amount received by smaller upstate systems, none of which operates light rail rapid transit.
Budget officials have insisted against all evidence that the NFTA is treated as fairly as other upstate transit agencies and wants the agency to do more to trim expenses. However, as NFTA Executive Director Kimberly A. Minkel has noted, the FTA says the NFTA is doing a good job managing operations effectively and efficiently.
The real discussion should center on the NFTA’s odd mashup of funding, which, besides state aid, consists of 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. The petroleum, telephone and mortgage taxes are unreliable revenue streams. While the sales tax is relatively healthy now, that revenue stream is subject to the whims of the economy.
NFTA Chairman Howard A. Zemsky, who is in a tough spot as one of the governor’s closest Western New York allies, took a measured approach to the issue. His suggestion that NFTA officials review “all aspects” of their operations and possibly defer scheduled capital expenses is the best path forward – for now. But changes are needed in the way transit authorities are funded by the state.
Minkel cited the $51 million the Westchester County bus system received from the state. With 320 buses, Westchester’s fleet is virtually identical to that of the NFTA, which received only $45 million. And, as Minkel pointed out, Westchester is not responsible for operating a rail system.
Buffalo is making a comeback, with the burgeoning Medical Campus, an active waterfront and, thanks to the governor, businesses starting to locate to the area.
Many of those people will be depending on the NFTA to get around. The state has to ensure that the NFTA is up to the job, and that means offering an appropriate level of funding.