Weekly Feature

2011-10-19 / Editorial

‘Extension’ of light rail a good idea – 25 years ago

Managing Editor

When the late Jack Kemp represented a large part of Western New York in Congress, he had an unshakeable stand regarding the future of the light-rail rapid transit system built along Main Street in Buffalo.

He would not stand for the word “extension” when it came to talk about the rail line heading north from the University at Buffalo’s south campus. He called it “completion” because he was smart enough to see that the line had to reach the North Campus if it were to become a viable transportation option with regional appeal.

That was more than 25 years ago. More than a quarter-century has slipped away.

Last week, a $1.2 million grant was awarded to the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority to “evaluate transportation alternatives in the Amherst-Buffalo corridor,” according to a joint release issued by Reps. Louise Slaughter, Brian Higgins and Kathy Hochul.

The grant comes from the Federal Transit Administration’s Alternative Analysis program, described as a program to identify ways to increase the ease, speed and convenience of commuting in well-traveled areas.

Personally, I have mixed emotions on the need to perform this costly study. Let’s presume for a moment that the study recommends building the rail line. On the one hand, extending or completing the system to the North Campus would serve only a limited ridership. It would be beneficial to UB students as they connect between dorms in the north and classrooms and labs in the south. Currently, the university provides a private bus service between campuses to accomplish this.

Yet an electric rail system would dramatically cut air pollution along this route, which, if it follows Grover Cleveland Highway, is primarily residential. That’s a plus.

But that also brings us to a significant minus. If the new line is constructed below ground from the existing South Campus station, crews will have to claw their way beneath homes and businesses and disrupt existing utility and support systems.

Building above ground in this neighborhood would be Armageddon. Heading north from Bailey Avenue and Grover Cleveland Highway to Millersport Highway, the light-rail cars would whoosh and wobble past more than 145 single family homes. There are also several multiple occupancy dwellings and small businesses along this route. I would not want a train going past my front door. The fact-finders would have to identify a way for these people to get their cars in and out of their driveways. And if I had a shoe repair shop or a dry cleaning establishment, I would want customers to have easy access.

Topping the list of impediments to an above-ground rail line on Millersport would be the twin spans of the Youngmann Memorial Highway. I didn’t make any measurements, but it does not look like the NFTA’s rail cars and transmission lines would fit beneath them.

There would have to be consideration given to all the cars that travel these roads because rail traffic will likely displace them. Access to side streets would also be affected.

Had the connection to the North

Campus been a reality within the first few years that the existing line was built, property owners facing disruption would have had fair warning. Instead, any work on a completion of the northbound course will be entangled in red tape.

I think the best solution is improved bus service – buses powered by alternative energy sources. This fleet should be designated to run on a limited-access basis, with no stops between the campuses. Anyone on the South Campus who needs to attend a class, study at the library, or attend a concert or sporting event on the North Campus would benefit.

Conversely, students or others wishing to leave the North Campus to connect with the Metro Rail’s South Campus station also will benefit. They can board a train for the theater district, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus or the First Niagara Center.

Unfortunately, the dream of rail service from the waterfront to the UB Amherst Campus will have to remain a dream.

(David F. Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at dsherman@beenews.com.)

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