Governor Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State speech at UB last week, among many things, was a defining moment for our long-sought light rail extension. Hearing him announce state backing to get that project on track, so to speak, was especially gratifying to me personally, given what it took for me to get to his speech. Getting to my seat in the packed UB Center for the Arts, and home again, required cobbling together at least a half dozen segments, links, transfers, and modes of transportation. Along the way I had the stress of narrowly missing a connection, and narrowly making another. As far as I’m concerned, this project can’t come soon enough.
And it’s long overdue. The link from UB South Campus to North Campus was omitted from the original Metro Rail construction, and periodic attempts to revive it have gone nowhere. Although, in recent years, NFTA has been studying the extension anew in earnest, there was no guarantee that the results wouldn’t be consigned to the same fate as dozens of other planning studies of all kinds now collecting dust on shelves.
NFTA’s Amherst study looked at a variety of routes, endpoints, and options. Should the extension go to North Campus? Should it go to Williamsville, and perhaps beyond to ECC? Should it bus rapid transit? Should it be light rail? If light rail, should it be in a tunnel? On the surface? Or a combination? What route should it take?
Also, crucially, would the study generate any significant opposition this time around? In marked contrast to previous efforts, none emerged. In fact, intriguingly, the main pushback I observed was from Citizens for Regional Transit, who I heard argue for bus rapid transit over light rail, and also that the airport link should have priority over the Amherst extension.
Now, in the last week, the picture is coming into focus. NFTA, with stakeholders, has determined a preferred route. The Amherst extension has the full support of the state, meaning it will also get whatever financial support is available from the federal government. In fact, it’s now clear that the project has support at all levels. It’s not going to be prioritized behind the airport link. Next we’ll do the engineering and design work, get it funded, and then do the damn thing. All under a governor who loves nothing more than to bulldoze roadblocks and who celebrated New Years in a new subway station. People, get ready: there’s a train a-coming.
Note that it will be a train a-coming, not a bus, because the extension will be rail and not bus rapid transit. NFTA Executive Director Kimberly Minkel told The Buffalo News that stakeholder input, “demonstrated a preference for rail’s ‘one seat’ option.” “That was overwhelming from our stakeholders. There was a lot of conversation about not getting off one vehicle and onto another. That helps from the time standpoint,” she told the News.
I’m relieved that decision got made, because rail is the only way to have a MetroRail extension that runs as reliably and predictably as MetroRail itself. One of the justifications for the MetroRail extension is to eliminate the current, costly UB Stampede shuttle fleet. Instead, UB will be able to just give students a ride pass on MetroRail. Also, faculty and staff will be more likely to use MetroRail between campuses than the current shuttles, which will be key to transitioning South Campus away from being half campus, half parking lot. With a reliable MetroRail link between the campuses, you could even imagine UB shifting much of their South Campus parking to North Campus. Would that happen with bus rapid transit? Almost certainly not: it wouldn’t be as fast and reliable, it would require mode changes, and it would be a bus.
While all this is happening, the siting of the new train station, whether at Canalside, Larkinville, or the Central Terminal, will focus new attention and energy along the eventual light rail path to the airport, which will almost certainly include a portion of the Belt Line. So by the time the Amherst extension is complete, the community should have a much better sense of what our next light rail project should be, and how it should be done. And a successful Amherst extension will put some can-do wind in the sails of whatever the next project may be.
In his speech, the Governor did not give specifics about how the Amherst Extension would be configured, but the diagram he displayed (backed up by information released by Empire State Development after the speech) immediately clarified some things for me. For one, the extension will be a hybrid of tunnel and surface running. The preferred route is as follows:
1) Extending the existing tunnel northeast from University station, parallel to Main Street, then turning north to run underneath Bailey Avenue. It makes sense to start with a tunnel segment, even though expensive, because the current line is already in a tunnel (a deep one, well below the base of the escarpment atop which South Campus sits), and because in an arc north of North Campus are all residential streets, none of which would lend themselves to surface rail.
2) Somewhere in the vicinity of Sheridan Drive and Northtowns Plaza, where suburban land use patterns begin to predominate, the extension will come to the surface. Among other things, that means the new Whole Foods will be on MetroRail, y’all.
3) The extension will make a jog west to Niagara Falls Boulevard, then head north past the Boulevard Mall. NFTA has published a rendering showing transit-oriented development (TOD) at Boulevard Mall, with a station at the corner of Maple Road. Boulevard Mall has fallen on tough times, and is currently for sale, with an uncertain future. This could be the boost it needs. Among other things, this means the new Trader Joe’s on Niagara Falls Boulevard will be within walking distance of MetroRail, y’all.
4) From the Boulevard Mall, the extension will head back east along Maple Road, from which it will head northeast into North Campus. NFTA has published a rendering of a station at the existing Flint Loop. From there, it appears the extension will skirt the southern perimeter of the campus “spine” to the stadium and the Center for the Arts, where the Governor spoke. Presumably there will be a stop there, perhaps akin to the current “events stop” at Canalside, as those venues will surely be major destinations for passengers when they have scheduled events.
The vision for the MetroRail extension seems to be not to just provide a single-seat, point-to-point connection to North Campus, but explicitly to spur economic development in the southwest corner of Amherst. In fact, the MetroRail extension could have taken a straight-shot alignment between the UB campuses via Millersport Road, but the planned alignment was chosen specifically with an eye toward economic development and better linking Buffalo residents with jobs and commercial resources north of the border. NFTA is armed with studies showing the extension could bring “$1.7 billion in increased development” and “a projected $310 million hike in property values” along the route. By boosting the projected economic impact of the project, choosing this route will also help secure the competitive federal dollars necessary to make it happen.
What’s next with this project is all about those federal dollars. According to the Buffalo News, “Minkel noted approval of the federal government and its current 50 percent share of the cost remains an important hurdle, though the federal funding share could increase under the Trump administration’s expected infrastructure initiatives.” NFTA Director Minkel also told the Buffalo News, “The timing is perfect. Millennials are the age group we most want to attract and retain, and they look to areas with a robust transit system.”
The Buffalo News also sought reaction from Buffalo Congressman Brian Higgins:
The state’s embrace of the project also significantly enhances its funding chances in Washington, according to Rep. Brian Higgins, who reiterated his plans to champion any infrastructure bill the Trump administration proposes.
“There are very, very positive aspects to what the governor talked about, and now it’s incumbent on this delegation to makes these projects a reality,” Higgins said. “The needs of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus have breathed new life into the light rail rapid transit system.
And Buffalo Business First has a good step-by-step breakdown:
Even if everything lines up on the political side construction won’t begin until 2020 or 2021 at the earliest. It could take as long as five years to complete the extension, putting the Amherst line in service sometime around 2026, nearly a decade from now.
Getting the train rolling, so to speak, starts on Jan. 26 when the NFTA commissioners have to vote starting the environmental reviews and preliminary design phases, using the $5 million Cuomo pledged in his Jan. 9 “State of the State” address on the UB campus. Neither will begin until the state releases the money, assuming it survives the budget review process. At the earliest that money may be allocated to the NFTA is mid-spring.
“The studies are critical,” Minkel said. “It allows to get into the federal (funding) process. It allows us to be shovel-ready.”
The dual studies could take anywhere from 18 months to two years to complete.
This project will put to the test — and could provide a critical confirmation of — Buffalo’s newfound sense that we can do big things again. And not only that, we can get them right this time.
As the NFTA’s Minkel told Buffalo Business First:
Nobody is saying this is definitely for real. We’re not there yet, but this is as close as we have ever been in the past 30 years and that is significant. But, no one is putting the cart before the horse when it comes to the Amherst extension. We all know there is a lot of work to be done, first. This time, it is very palpable and not ‘pie-in-the-sky’ talk.