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NFTA says bus and rail service may never return to normal

Mike Desmond / WBFO News
Slides provided during Thursday's public meeting.

For public transit in Buffalo, there are two key items for improvement: an end to the pandemic so people will ride again and a lot more outside money, probably from Washington. Both were discussed at a public meeting Thursday evening.

Local riders on public transit can look very lonely these days, with so few of them on buses or trains. What to do about getting transit through the current pandemic was the topic for a meeting of Citizens for Regional Transit, featuring Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, Downstate.

That group's primary focus is the financially devastated network of bus and rail services around New York City, where bus ridership is recovering. However, Sifuentes said Washington has to come through or some systems won't make it. Tri-State is seeking $32 billion.

"To get them through 2021, given the dramatic shortfall in ridership, we think it's incredibly important that Congress and the White House need to act immediately to ensure that transit continue to operate safely and at good levels of service to make sure that the people who must be on transit, those essential workers, are able to socially distance and that transit can bounce back in a post-COVID environment," Sifuentes said.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

Buffalo's Metro Bus and Metro Rail have been hit hard, even with furloughing some routes and services to cut costs. Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority Public Transit Director Thomas George said bus ridership is back to about 50% of what it was last year, continuing the authority's financial problems.

George said, when city school students return to the buses, they have to follow the new COVID rules.

"School kids are no different than our regular riders, who maintain the standards of the density that we have right now," he said. "So if the school district comes back in, we'll have those exact same standards and we'll have those special buses that we send out to the school kids just to help with maintaining those standards that we have. There's going to be no relaxing of the standards."

George was asked when service will return to normal.

"We'll be looking at our system, as a whole. We may need changes across the board in order to accomodate this. I guess the answer to that question would be when our funding and our ridership return back to where it was, then we would look at having the system back to where it was, prior to COVID. Right now, we don't know when that will occur or if it will occur," George said.

The NFTA is targeting its 2022-23 fiscal year for a sustainable model to be in place.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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