Trump’s infrastructure plan is going nowhere; a friendly debate about extending the Metrorail line

For a time period that seems like forever, Donald Trump and his loyal minions have been promising an aggressive and substantial infrastructure program to improve the nation’s roads, bridges, airports and waterways. It started during the campaign and the tweets and talking points still keep coming.

At first, before the election, it was going to be a $500 billion plan. Then after the election it became $1 trillion, and more recently $1.5 trillion. And it would be done in the first hundred days, which would have been last April 30th. And Steve Bannon was going to push it hard as part of a populist program.

The plan, such as it was, projected an opportunity for bi-partisanship, something that both parties could agree on.   And who could argue with things like re-building roads and bridges.

But the “repeal and replace Obamacare” effort of the Republicans in the White House and Congress bogged things down. The incompetence of the ever-changing White House staff has meant there would not be any presidential leadership on the infrastructure issue.

Then we found out that the $1 trillion plan was actually $200 billion of federal cash and lots and lots of state and local money, with private money thrown in by privatizing public facilities. A quarter of that $200 billion would go to rural areas. Cash-strapped states would be expected to stretch other priorities or to decline to participate. Private sector involvement could lead to re-installing toll barriers on the Niagara Section of the Thruway or adding tolls on the Scajaquada or the Kensington Expressways – what great ideas!

And by the way, the Republicans in Congress are mostly against spending any federal money for infrastructure, making even the $200 billion unlikely. They are looking to trim what is already in the federal budget for infrastructure.

So while talking points are still floating out there in Washington, the Trump infrastructure plan is going nowhere.

With this as a backdrop, enter a discussion about the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority looking to spend $5 million on planning for a six mile expansion of the current Metrorail line, starting at the University at Buffalo South Campus and working its way through Amherst to the UB North Campus.

It’s nice of the state to offer money for local projects. But does it make sense to study a project that has no hope of going anywhere (pun intended)?

Current rough, really big ballpark estimates of constructing the rail line suggest a price tag of more than $1 billion. The original line cost about half that, but those contracts were awarded almost forty years ago. Something this big, in the 2020 decade, is likely to cost much more than a 2018 rough estimate. Whether it is $1 billion or $2 billion, where would that money come from?

Eighty percent of the original 1970s project cost (about $400 million) came from the federal government; note that while there aren’t any details, Trump’s “plan” would seem to at best only provide a 20 percent match.

The other twenty percent of the original rail project in the 1970s was to be local, but the state actually provided that money. But where will the local share of project costs come from in the 2020s? The state? Erie County government? The Town of Amherst? The City of Buffalo? All pretty unlikely. It should also be noted that Metrorail ridership has declined 42 percent in the past 25 years, with a major impact of system revenues.

There are suggestions about the spin-off neighborhood retail benefits of being located near rail stops. It is suggested that extra property or sales tax revenues generated at such locations could help fund the project. The experience in Buffalo hasn’t been all that inspiring, except of course at stops such as the Medical Campus and the Arena downtown.

And then there is the question about where the operating subsidies would come from to support the added rail service. All public transit in the United States runs at a loss of some amount. Fare box revenues generated on the current Metrorail line in Buffalo produced only about 23 percent of the cost of the operation in 2016, according to the NFTA. That would require lots of every-year subsidy dollars just to keep the line operational, while also maintaining the current system.

I also have questions about the route of the extension and what would occur during construction.

The map of the proposal shows that there would be twelve stops on the rail extension. Five of those stops would be on the North Campus of UB. So what they would in effect be building with nearly half the stops is an intra-campus trolley system. Why? How would that benefit the community at-large that would be paying for at least the local share of the project?

Not everything about getting older is so great, but there is some value in learning from experience. Many folks who are interested in this project were toddlers, or not even born when the original line was built. So here’s a quick picture about what happens when the construction starts. Major disruptions on the streets where the work will be done will be significant and long-lasting. The work will be very messy. Property values will not benefit. Businesses along the construction route will suffer and some won’t survive.

For these reasons I agree with Congressman Brian Higgins that it makes little sense to spend money on a study for a transit project that has no real financial hope of getting off the ground (or underground either). The money will never be there to pay for this project, so why spend $5 million to study it?

The other part of Higgins’ suggestion, about concentrating on Metrorail work at the southern end of Main Street, makes more sense. There have been some amazing things done in the downtown Canalside area over the past ten years, and that work is bringing in people, many who haven’t been to the City in many years, to visit, to dine, to be entertained and to live. Go with what works.

Politics and Other Stuff exists, hopefully, to stimulate thought and discussion. So here is a discussion about the other side of the issue from someone very familiar with and supportive of the extension of the rail line, Alan Oberst, aka @HeyRaChaCha.

Another view

The Governor made Metro Rail extension through UB North Campus a priority at last year’s State of the State address. He announced plans and funding for the study on which NFTA recently voted to move ahead. The Governor’s address was delivered on North Campus itself, and anyone who tried to use transit to get there didn’t need any convincing of the necessity. The Governor’s support and the long recognition of need make Congressman Higgins’ recent objections, aired at the eleventh hour through the media, rather than made privately to NFTA, seem like a throwback to the old Buffalo that couldn’t get out of its own way due to roadblocks thrown up by competing power centers. Yet Higgins himself has decried that very stagnation in relation to the Peace Bridge and other long-sought projects: conducting studies that go nowhere or just raising and dashing hopes.

Higgins himself has supported Metro Rail extension in the past, including, reportedly, this winter to NFTA officials. His eleventh-hour objection, apparently made without ever sharing his concerns privately with NFTA officials, is baffling. It even has internal consistency problems that has all hearing it scratching their heads. Seeing this project through would solidify the idea that we can get big things done around here again. Forcing it off-track — literally — would only bolster the barstool cynics who say our best days are behind us.

In his comments to the media, Higgins points to the recent UB move to the medical campus, as if it’s something new and different. But it’s been in the works for the better part of a decade. And the fact that, with this move, UB now has indisputably three major campuses actually bolsters the case for the extension: we need to link them all seamlessly together. The Governor acknowledged the centrality of UB to the region when he named President Satish Tripathi as one of the first co-chairs of our regional economic development council.

UB is one of our region’s chief economic engines, critical to all efforts for a new economy, yet even many in the region aren’t aware that UB is the top public university in the state, and one of the top four in the northeast. It’s a magnet for talented students and faculty from around the world. But when many of them arrive, without driver licenses or cars, they are relegated to an unpleasant-at-best bus shuttle system, and find campuses surrounded by windswept prairies of surface parking. Until the campuses are seamlessly linked, this won’t change and for UB to unleash its full potential, it must change. That is a primary reason why Metro Rail extension should be a top regional priority.

But far from the only reason. Metro Rail is exactly the kind of transportation system we need more of, now. There are many misconceptions or outright myths about Metro Rail. It is derided as “the train to nowhere” or made the scapegoat for killing downtown retail (which died at the same time in other cities without rail transit). But Metro Rail is one of the few public services around here that actually works the way it’s supposed to. For the most part, it operates like clockwork. It allowed Buffalo to avoid being trapped in the strictly hub-and-spoke transit configuration left over from the streetcar era, as other upstate cities have been. No other upstate city has a transit option that whisks you across town more quickly and reliably than driving a car. It’s efficient, and it’s environmental — powered by Niagara Falls.

Erie County and New York State recently committed to meeting Paris climate-change goals, and in doing so noted that transportation is the largest segment source of greenhouse gasses, bolstering the case for more Metro Rail. Another environmental plus is that Metro Rail can support denser, transit-oriented development in the suburbs. It could help us finally reverse the decades-old development trend to just keep pushing sprawl farther out and gobbling up ecologically or recreationally valuable lands closer in. And for anyone who thinks rail transit could be rendered obsolete by new transportation technologies, results of a recent panel discussion by Citizens for Regional Transit should disabuse them of that notion. According to panelists promoting ride sharing and self-driving vehicles, light rail is the one transit mode likely to find first-mile/last-mile synergies with those technologies.

Metro Rail extension should also be a positive for Amherst. By making South Campus less car-dependent, it will provide a much nicer and sightline environment not just for students, but its Eggertsville neighbors. That neighborhood will also be essentially bypassed by construction, which (as I understand it) will be done mostly by a tunnel boring machine. There is a station proposed for the residential section of Bailey Avenue, but even if implemented isn’t likely to spark substantial new development around it.

The extension will also make things nicer to the north of Eggertsville, where the Boulevard Mall has lost its way. Metro Rail would give Boulevard Mall a new lease on life as a lifestyle center, which by being located on rail transit would be much more sustainable than the one proposed for Eastern Hills. And let’s not forget that Amherst has major employment centers that are difficult to access for transit users. I did some consulting for a banking operation near the Boulevard Mall, and found getting there by transit a nightmare. The present system will never attract the discretionary riders necessary to bend the car-centric curve of suburban transportation.

In short, we need to extend Metro Rail — and bolster it within the city, too. They’re not mutually exclusive, but mutually reinforcing. To use a favorite phrase of Dean Robert Shibley of the UB School of Architecture and Planning: it’s not either-or, but both-and.

Alan Oberst has over two decades of experience in local government and politics, in Rochester, Syracuse, and Buffalo. In that time, he has played lead roles in a number of transportation, planning, community development, and preservation projects. For a decade, he has written frequently for Buffalo Rising, and also for Buffalo Spree, Artvoice, and City & State New York. He has also been a guest on WBEN, WBFO, and The Public Podcast.  He has recently written about Metro Rail extension and the related Transit-Oriented Development study for Buffalo Rising: