BUFFALO, NY ( Business First ) Faced with a nearly $15 million projected hole in its 2012-2013 fiscal year budget, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority Board of Commissioners approved a plan that sets into the possible service reduction on 57 of its bus and Metro Rail routes.
The cuts, if enacted, will not take effect until the start of the NFTA's fiscal year on April 1, 2012 and only after a series of public hearings are held Those hearings are set for the week of Jan. 30 at locations in Buffalo, Erie and Niagara counties. The proposed cuts are a central part of the authority's Dec. 19-approved $197.9 million operating budget for 2012-2013, which was approved by a 7-3 vote by commissioners.
"The impact on the region is severe," said Eunice Lewin, NFTA board vice chairperson and chair of the authority's Surface Transportation System committee.
The possible route cuts - available here - could help close the gap by at least $7.1 million. The remainder of the savings would come from a large menu of reductions and layoffs within its system.
The pending cuts drew the attention of Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, who addressed the NFTA commissioners about the budget and its potential impact on the community. Brown's appearance marked the first time in at least two decades that a Buffalo mayor has attended a commissioners meeting and made comments to the board.
Brown said he is concerned because of an estimated 80 percent of the more than 29 million passengers who ride either one of the NFTA bus routes or use its Metro Rail service are city residents.
"I didn't come here to preach to you," Brown said. "But, as mayor, I hate to see you cut service because of the number of people who rely on your service."
Brown did say he is lobbying Albany lawmakers and the New York Power Authority to release funds or offer incentives, like low-cost hydropower allocations, that could help the NFTA close its budget gap and possibly reduce the number of route cuts. The NFTA is seeking 8 megawatts of low-cost hydropower from the power authority.
Henry Sloma, NFTA acting chairman, admits he is more than miffed at New York state, which allocated $250 million aid to New York City's cash-poor Metropolitan Transit Authority but rejected a request for $10 million, made earlier this fall, by the local transit authority.
"I thought we'd at least get honorable mention," Sloma said.
Among the routes being considered by the authority includes all weekend service on Route No. 44, a bus that runs between the University at Buffalo South Campus and the CrossPoint Business Park in Amherst. CrossPoint is home to such businesses as Geico and Bank of America, both of which operate call centers that run on a seven-day-a-week operation and Route 206 that provides Buffalo State College students with access to nearby Wegmans and Tops supermarkets.
Also, potentially on the chopping block, is weekday and Saturday service between Erie Community College's North, City and South campuses.
The bulk of the NFTA's looming financial woes comes from cut backs in state operating assistance it receives, coupled with rising operating expenses including fuel costs. The irony is that the NFTA is looking at a record number of riders on its bus and rail system, at least 29 million by the end of the current fiscal year and maybe closer to 30 million, said Kim Minkel, authority executive director.
"The last thing we want to do is strand any rider," Minkel said.
The new budget calls for the elimination of 50 current NFTA employees, including 20 from its transit police force. If all the bus and rail route changes are enacted, another 120 employees could be facing pink slips.
"There was a lot of thought and a lot of pain that went into this budget," Sloma conceded. "It is the hardest decision I've had to make. What we did today is going to impact a lot of people."
Both Sloma and Minkel said they hope there is enough of an outcry that Albany lawmakers free up funds for the NFTA and some of the route cuts are postponed or dropped.
However, both said, the short- and long-term fiscal picture doesn't look any better in the ensuing years, again, because of cuts in operating assistance and rising costs.
"Next year's problem is probably going to be worse and worse again, after that," Sloma said. "I think the public needs to be heard loud and clear on this."