FTA Skeptical About Buffalo Light Rail Extension

Expansion of a light rail line in Buffalo, New York, may give way to a bus rapid transit line instead.

The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority has been directed by the Federal Transit Administration to consider BRT instead of rail because it would cost less and could be implemented sooner.

Extension of the light rail system to the University at Buffalo’s North Campus could cost $1 billion, the FTA noted.

But NFTA earlier rejected BRT and contends that the seven-mile rail extension remains a viable option.

The Buffalo News reported that unnamed “federal sources” said what transit mode that a transit agency chooses is ultimately up to that agency and studying BRT is part of the requirements for an environmental study.

NFTA officials have acknowledged that a light rail extension is expensive and may be a tough sell in the COVID-19 pandemic era.

“The world has changed, and we don’t know what funding will be available to us in the future,” said Kimberley A. Minkel, NFTA’s executive director.

The newspaper quoted Lawrence W. Penner, a Long Island transportation advocate who worked with NFTA for many of his 31 years with FTA, as saying the federal agency’s recommendation that BRT be studied again is a “reality check” and a red flag that FTA is not sold on this light rail line.

“It tells me they are hinting to NFTA to get their feet firmly on the ground and look at an alternative that is more feasible,” he said. “FTA is saying bus rapid transit is far more realistic and could be completed far more quickly.”

However, the FTA’s recommendation did favor some sort of enhanced public transit in the “Amherst corridor.”

Although it’s possible that the FTA might ultimately decide that even BRT is not feasible, Minkle doesn’t expect that to happen even thought the FTA recommendation asked NFTA to study the “no build” option.

An earlier NFTA study predicted a light rail extension would generate $1.7 billion in development along its route from downtown to Amherst and increase daily ridership from 20,000 to about 45,000 trips.

Minkle said NFTA rail plan has consistently scored well in all applications for federal funding and received widespread community acceptance.

NFTA rejected BRT in earlier students because it would not attract nearly as many new passengers as rail.

Aside from FTA skepticism, Buffalo is facing fierce competition from other transit agencies seeking a limited amount of federal funding.

NFTA officials have said that construction of the light rail extension is unlikely even in a best case scenario before 2026 and service would not begin until 2030.

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