(Photo Courtesy of The Buffalo News)
Over the past year, politicians and city officials of the greater Buffalo region have been taking steps to go forward with a major transportation project. This project has promise to help Buffalo become a more mobile and accessible city as well as enhance economic development. No, it is not bringing Uber and Lyft to Buffalo. This project, being the NFTA Metro-Rail Amherst extension, is likely to have a far larger impact on the overall well-being of the greater Buffalo area.
The proposal is to extend the existing soft rail line from UB South Station to University at Buffalo’s North Campus in Amherst. There will be an underground extension underneath Bailey Avenue that resurfaces near Northtown Plaza, where it will continue above ground on Niagara Falls Boulevard and then eastward on Maple Road to UB North Campus.
Earlier this year, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his support of the revisited proposal at his State of the State address as part of the second phase of the Buffalo Billion. With the backing of the State, this marks the closest this project has ever been to becoming reality. This would be an exciting development for the area. It could help change Buffalo both socially and economically, while turning a dull and generic area of the Northtowns into a vibrant and attractive place to live and play.
Out of necessity, the Metro-Rail extension would spur a complete redesign of the road and a rezoning of the adjacent neighborhood. Amherst has more commercially zoned parcels, but both Tonawanda and Amherst have residential neighborhoods in close proximity to the road. Therefore, there is more at stake than just the local economy, as homeowners will be impacted on both sides. They have a lot to gain with a large development project like this that extends beyond more transit options and access to popular destinations. It is the opportunity for lively development, and, if I can speculate on a hypothetical, equity to be gained.
Although challenging, a redesign of the Boulevard is long overdue. Even without a metro-rail extension, pedestrian amenities as basic as paved sidewalks on the Boulevard would save lives. However, according to Town Supervisor of the Town of Tonawanda Joe Emminger, constructing and maintaining sidewalks on the Boulevard simply “comes down to dollars and cents.” If you ask me, that’s how you run a lemonade stand, not how you govern and care for people’s well-being.
Seen in the rendering below is the proposed corner of Niagara Falls Boulevard and Maple Road, which is adjacent to the eroding Boulevard Mall.
Looks pretty cool, eh?
One could be forgiven for saying that this doesn’t look like Tonawanda or Amherst at all. It really doesn’t even look like a suburb, and perhaps that’s the best part. Though I may sound like a naive idealist millennial, suburbs are designed for isolation and residents effectively surrender their living space and mobility to the automobile. This rendering appears to represent the opposite.
At the corner, you can see a re-imagined intersection with a mixed-use development, which would provide a space for people to interact and converse. It could be a neighborhood where business has the ability to thrive instead of dying a slow predictable death. In fact, it’s entirely conceivable that people just might want to live on a street with this much action and aesthetic. People who work downtown might choose to live in Tonawanda or Amherst if they had a direct and easy connection to downtown. Plus, all the savings in parking alone would be considerable. Ultimately, if planned with integrity, Niagara Falls Boulevard could be a desirable place that would encourage foot traffic rather than representing an “avoid-at-all-costs” area.
Perhaps the most important thing that this project could help accomplish is that it could strengthen our current public transit network. Today, the greater Buffalo’s transit network has been found to be weak in both activity and effectiveness in a study published by the Partnership for Public Good. The Working Towards Equity report did a brilliant job at giving historical context, coupled with analysis of the existing transit network, employment areas, and census data. The report highlighted how Buffalo has developed over the last half century in a “sprawl without growth” pattern. In other words, our population has remained stagnant while we continue to develop outward. In a historical process known as “white flight,” white middle class families moved out of the city and into the suburbs in the last half of the 20th century. Employment, better schools, and access to health care opportunities followed in this pattern. In fact, 58% of jobs in the region are beyond the reach of transit networks. In the reports analysis of employment centers in the greater Buffalo area (seen below), you can see how major employment centers (pictured in blue) are scattered and spread out.
As a result, the existing nature of employment centers creates problems for the citizens residing in the 56,700 households in the Buffalo-Niagara metropolitan area that do not own a vehicle. 67% of these households are low-income, and more than 2,000 of these car-less households have no access to public transportation. The NFTA estimates that over half of its ridership would be comprised of people who do not own a car. Barriers to employment centers and unreliable public transit are classic ingredients for segregation and chronic poverty.
When we examine a dot density map of race in the greater Buffalo region, we can see that the neighborhoods that are almost exclusively white have all the employment centers.
If seeing a map of how segregated we are isn’t alarming enough, historical analysis shows that we have designed for this through urban renewal policies. While these facts are sad, they are unfortunately true, and they will remain the status quo until we take real steps to offset a history of structural racism that has weakened our city’s potential.
One of those potential steps would be to strengthen our transit system. The Amherst Metro-Rail extension would be a huge step in the right direction. Not to say that the Metro-Rail extension is the only way to solve this issue, but it would be a comprehensive way to accomplish that, while also opening doors for future development. Though this project alone certainly does not go far enough to resolve all of our planning failures in the past, it is a bold statement in creating equal access to upward mobility. Cities that take steps to do so are simply more prosperous and possess residents that are both happier and healthier.
If this is the closest this project has ever come to being reality, how close is it?
In short, not really close.
So far, the project is estimated to be about $15.8 million in operating cost annually. Even NFTA officials have accepted that without financial commitments from state and local leaders, the plan will fail to materialize. In terms of municipal and institutional cooperation, the Town of Tonawanda, Town of Amherst, City of Buffalo, NFTA, and the University at Buffalo will all need to be at the table and willing to work together to find the best way to move forward. So far, an environmental impact study has been commissioned, and the University at Buffalo has stated that they would contribute the cost of the Buffalo Stampede (which would be replaced by this project). It is especially valuable to UB when considering that its students would likely comprise about half of the ridership due to its expanding downtown medical campus.
In a recent Investigative Post article, Thomas George, who is the director of public transit for the NFTA, was quoted as saying “We’re not moving along in a process to the construction, we’re moving along in the evaluation process.” To be fair, this is the right thing to do before any concrete decisions are made. At the most recent public meeting held by Citizens for Regional Transit, Emminger and Eric Gillert, who is the Town of Amherst’s Planning Director, agreed that this project could help their respective communities, if done right.
Ultimately, I hope “doing it right” means serving the well-being and livelihood of the neighborhood and the greater region. I want my hometown to develop, but not in ways that will exclude others from living and playing in my community. Even with the significant limitations, this project is something to keep our eyes and ears on. The potential benefits go further than convenience and spurring fun and interesting development. It is possible that this project would have a sizable impact on our community well-being and our economic and racial equity. Thinking even beyond this project, I’d like to see Buffalo have a belt line like the one in Atlanta.
Personally, I live just around the corner from these potential happenings, and I will be attending these meetings with great anticipation of the possibilities that such a development could bring. Although it may be wishful thinking at this point, I truly believe that this project would represent the existence of a more prosperous and equitable future in Buffalo.