A major issue that should be heard in the discussion of the Cars on Main Street project is: How much does this cost? and Who pays the bill?
Answer: We do.
A search through the documents that support the project reveals precious little information on actual costs. The Final Design Report of 2006* discusses projected costs for the whole street, ranging from $53 million to $75 million, estimated in 2008 dollars. A major portion of the cost could have paid for needed trackbed repairs (area of the street used by the rails). Additional items needed for efficient operation of the light rail were two cross-overs, at Church Street and south of Scott Street. These cross-overs were determined to be too costly, and the City planners were instructed to drop them from the project, in order to make the project "more fundable."
Consequently, the project offers minimal improvements to the trackbed, which currently is in obvious need of repair. When vehicles are allowed to travel on the trackbed, deterioration of the concrete supports for the rails will accelerate due to the impacts of motor vehicles, thereby putting greater pressure on the NFTA to do costly repairs sooner than expected.
So who pays for this project? Taxpayers, naturally.
According to Buffalo Place**, "Funding for this project comes from the 2005 SAFETEA-LU federal transportation authorization bill and includes local matches provided by the City of Buffalo, NFTA and a New York State Transportation Enhancement Program grant."
Buffalo Place thanks Congressman Brian Higgins and Senators Schumer and Gillibrand for securing $6 million (earmarks) for the project, but admits that no funding is on hand for the rest of the project south of Chippewa Street.
Funding sources are identified in the NFTA budget for 2011-2012 as follows: Total cost for the whole project could be over $75 million, broken down as: Federal Highway Administration, $60+ million; NYSDOT, $11+ million; City of Buffalo, $2.5 million; Erie County mortgage tax ("88c"), $1.2 million. Yearly break-outs are estimated at: $18.4 first year, $49.8 second year, $7.4 third year.
Taxpayers, at every level of government, contribute to this project.
So what do we have, so far?
*Senator Schumer provided nearly $2 million for planning-- money already spent.
*If the Theater Station is eliminated, the City of Buffalo will be obliged to reimburse the Federal Transit Administration in the amount of $300,000 for the current value of the station.***
*The plan calls for vehicles to travel around the train portal and onto the train tracks for a few feet, to dead-end on Chippewa Street.
*The Metro Rail trackbed in downtown Buffalo will not be repaired and refurbished with Federal dollars. Rather, the current design minimizes trackbed work, while creating significant hurdles for the operations and safety of the transit system.
*Any effort to complete the Cars on Main Street project beyond Chippewa Street faces extreme financial difficulties. New York State, Erie County and the City of Buffalo have to live within balanced budgets, in tight fiscal times. The current outcry for reduced spending at the Federal level will reduce funds available through our Congressional representatives.
Who pays for this project? City, county, state and Federal taxpayers, transit riders and vehicle drivers alike.
Public monies are a scarce resource that must be used with respect and wisdom.
Is the Cars on Main Street project a smart investment for taxpayers?
Next: Safety, Reliability, Legal issues
*Final Design Report 2006, section 1.5.6
***NFTA Board of Commissioners minutes, 4-25-11