NFTA Seeks $50 Million in COVID-19 Relief to Avoid 'Devastating Position'

Nov. 20, 2020

Nov. 19—The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority is crafting a proposed $216.7 million budget to keep its buses, trains and two airports running — just like it does every year.

But with steep reductions in revenues stemming from Covid-19, the agency administering public transit in Erie and Niagara counties now looks to Washington for $50 million in help. Like organizations in so many other aspects of life in a pandemic age, the NFTA says Washington must come up with some form of assistance, or the ensuing reductions in service and personnel will be drastic.

"Like all transit systems and airports across the nation, without additional federal Covid relief funds, we will find ourselves in a devastating position," NFTA Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel said Thursday following a budget presentation to the board of commissioners.

Budget officials noted about $17.5 million will be needed to maintain current service levels at just the airports and the downtown bus terminal.

"Additional funding is desperately needed to help see us through this pandemic. To balance this budget, we need $50 million in federal assistance," Minkel added. "Without this assistance, it will have a significant impact on our airports, Metro operations and the many people who desperately rely on the services we provide. Additionally, it would have an enormous economic impact on our region."

Indeed, commissioners heard another recitation of grim statistics at its annual budget review session. Revenues are down 57% at Buffalo Niagara International Airport (where passengers have declined to 87% of normal); 71% at Niagara Falls International. And fares paid to ride Metro Bus and Rail are totaling only about 12% of total revenue, less than half their usual level.

Minkel also told her board members that that the American Public Transit Association — the agency trade group — says Congress will need to provide $32 billion to the nation's systems in the next few months. ( APTA also announced Thursday that a survey it sponsored found 77% of Americans favor emergency transit funding.)

Minkel also noted the downstate Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced thousands of layoffs this week, though she has not specified the extent of layoffs or service reductions that loom locally for the NFTA should the emergency funds not materialize.

The executive director said the authority has initiated a number of steps to control costs, including a hiring freeze, and will not rely on airport revenues to balance the books of Metro Bus and Rail. She envisions an annual savings of $16 million by next year.

The final budget, with amendments, will be voted on in March, in conjunction with adoption of a state budget expected to feature a multibillion dollar deficit.

"This budget has been put together with a lot of variables and uncertainties," Minkel said, adding that even more questions loom over revenues from the county sales tax, county mortgage taxes and state transit assistance.

It is expected that the authority will now work with the local congressional delegation to relay its needs to Washington.


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