NFTA Denied FTA New Starts Qualification

Written by Larry Penner, FTA Region 2 (Ret.)
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Photo courtesy The Buffalo News

There is bad news from Washington D.C. concerning federal support for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority’s (NFTA, Buffalo, N.Y.) proposed $1.4 billion Metro Rail Amherst Light Rail Extension project. According to the Federal Transit Administration New Starts Report for the upcoming Federal Fiscal Year 2021 (Oct. 1, 2020-Sept. 30, 2021), released earlier this month, the project did not qualify for a New Starts grant under the first step known as “Project Development.”

Not being admitted into the New Starts Program is disappointing news for the NFTA, which has been in discussion with the FTA for several years about its prospects. It represents a significant setback in the agency’s long-range goal of obtaining federal funding. It represents a potential delay of up to one more year for project advancement. As each year goes by, project costs tend to increase.

The Metro Rail Expansion project would extend the existing 6.4-mile light rail transit (Metro Rail) system in Buffalo from its current terminus at University Station on the University at Buffalo South Campus to Tonawanda and Amherst.

Any excuse for justification of this delay is the equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig. You can’t win a federal grant from the FTA if you haven’t been admitted into the New Starts Program. It is like a baseball player on the bench (NFTA) waiting for the coach (FTA) to place him in the lineup (admitted to the New Starts Program), advancing to the on-deck circle, waiting for a turn at bat (proceeding to final design and engineering), stepping up to home plate hoping for a hit (negotiating a Full Funding Grant Agreement, or FFGA), getting a hit (scoring an FFGA) and scoring a run (completing construction and placing the project in revenue service.) How do you get a hit and score a run if you aren’t even in the game?

The NFTA continues to offer overly optimistic hopes to project advocates, commuters, taxpayers and elected officials for promising to be successful in obtaining federal funding for the Amherst Light Rail Extension, going as far as to say it could shave $200 million from the cost by reducing some tunneling work. The odds are growing slim for the NFTA to win any Full Funding Grant Agreement from FTA for this project on or before 2025, based upon what should be disappointing news for local supporters.

Larry Penner is a transportation historian, writer and advocate who previously worked 31 years for the United States Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for the MTA, NYC Transit, Long Island Rail Road, Metro North Railroad, MTA Bus, New Jersey Transit and 30 other transit agencies in New York and New Jersey.

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