OPINION / COMMENTARY
On May 17, I went to the Niagara Frontier Transit Authority (NFTA) Surface Transportation meeting and heard some disturbing things concerning the direction of the NFTA.
My first concern is that the NFTA is planning to use compressed natural gas (CNG) to run all of its buses. This means that Western New York counties and NFTA riders could be supporting hydro-fracking, National Fuel Gas and other companies who have cruel practices, such as shutting people's heat off in the winter for a $30 bill. At the meeting it was stated that they have "brought National Fuel Gas in and are coordinating with them" and have buses under contract now which are fully ready to be converted to run on natural gas at this point whenever they decide to "pull the trigger". They have gotten grants to do so using National Fuel Gas' help.
This was a sudden announcement and news, it seemed, to most or all at the Board meeting and was not questioned by anyone there. The Buffalo News, which was in attendance did not report it to the public, instead reporting only on the change of chairmanship in its article a day or two after the meeting and on their plans to sell the waterfront property. The public had no chance to give input as to what their public transit system will run on, even though it is allof us that pay all the bills for the results of this choice - in the loss or gain for our land and water and in our health and quality of life and our children's lives and by getting fare increases and routes cut.
During the Surface Transportation meeting they said CNG is cheaper than electric, that's why they are choosing it instead of electric, which they had previously been favoring. Another grant that they had been planning to use to convert buses to electric they are now planning to use to convert them to natural gas. The Board's conversations on this topic can be heard on a video of the May NFTA Surface Transportation meeting starting at 5 minutes and ending at 7 minutes and 30 seconds, and starting again at 9 minutes and 40 second and ending at 10 minutes and 10 seconds.
From the research I've done it seems that the most green are also the most economical fuels and they are being used now in many countries which is a fact that has not been spread by any large media source or person in power in this country. Norway runs 65 Oslo city transit buses on sewage sludge now and is opening a new plant that will transform sewage sludge, food waste and manure into biogas fuel for 135 more of their buses. The plant's output will also be used for nutrient-rich biofertilizer for agriculture starting next year. Biogas fuel, which is a carbon dioxide-neutral fuel produced from biomass such as food waste, sewage sludge and manure runs quietly and is clean for the air. And because there is a both environmentally destructive and expensive aspect to what we do with trash, manure and sewage now, using these sources for power is a perfect or close to perfect solution! Many countries including Vietnam and Thailand are expanding their use of biofuel for vehicles and are using biogas for other power sources also. Japan is using a combination of solar and electric to run some of its public transit buses and Sweden has 750 city buses running on ethanol and is converting more to it.
The Denver Zoo is a groundbreaker in this country, having converted a vehicle to run on pellets made from trash and manure, which resolves its waste disposal problem as well as saves a lot of money. They are working on implementing this "biomass gasification system" for their heat and power also and will eventually, they say, use more than 90 percent of all the zoo's trash and all of its manure for its power, which they estimate could save the zoo as much as $150,000 a year in energy costs and reduce their landfill by 1.5 million pounds per year. And Vermont has made some legislation promoting biogas use.
Why can't the NFTA be a groundbreaker also and go with pellets made from trash, sewage and manure, like the Denver Zoo, saving our counties probably hundreds of thousands a year, considering the savings on both fuel and trash disposal? Artvoice a month or so ago wrote that we are dumping a million pounds of sewage a year into the Niagara River. The use of biogas could save us from the pollution of the way sewage, trash and manure are disposed of now. What an ideal proposal, and perfect to implement now, when they are ready and in the stages of making a change in their fueling method. Since the city and farmers pay to have their trash and manure disposed of maybe they would pay the NFTA to take it from them, resulting in the NFTA's either making money from their fuel source or close rather than spending money on it! And unless the community and hopefully also some in power also speak out, the NFTA may go ahead with their expensive and probably fracking promoting plan which is at this time still not yet set in stone.
Before the NFTA chooses an anti-environmental as well as a poor financial answer like natural gas, why haven't they given our community the chance to speak up on the issue? This was sprung on everyone suddenly, and the news did not get out to the public. Is it the fact that people are subtly embarrassed by the thought of using manure and trash to run vehicles that biogas is not seriously considered by the powers that be, even though it unarguably makes the most sense for our lives? Is it because it's fairly new to our world? Simply because it's new to our world does not mean we should wait. Let's make Buffalo, Niagara and Erie County forerunners. Let's not be staid.
The second disturbing item talked about in their Board meeting was that the NFTA is planning to implement a new system which puts machines in the stations to sell "Smartcards". These cards will contain in their memory the name of the person who has bought the card, which the NFTA will use to track the card owner's on every trip and keep records on that person. All they would have to do is to put some gadgets on lamp posts around the city and if someone has a Smartcard bus pass you can tell wherever they are! The NFTA could program the Smartcards to allow kids in its school pass program to ride only certain buses. It was stated at the Board meeting, “We could keep kids from going downtown who might cause trouble."
So, instead of spending the $12.5 million, which they have already set aside for this project on what I'd say is an unnecessary (they already have a fare collection system in place) “Big Brother”- type system, the NFTA could use that money to re-instate the route cuts it made this year, and lower the fares back to what they were previously, especially for the disabled, who have complained extremely that they, on a fixed income and already paying a lot for their rides, cannot afford the rate hike, if only someone who makes the rules could or would designate it to be used directly for those purposes. You can hear this on their video at 45 minutes to the end with special note at 56 to 58 and 1 hour and 6 minutes to the end.
This is a major issue in public transportation across the country - that there is PLENTY of money for new - CAPITAL ONLY - investment projects - like for the 10-plus new light rail cars they bought this year, for example, for the Theater Station project, for the airport projects, for implementing all kinds of new technologies, for the Smartcards - the list goes on, NONE OF WHICH ARE NEEDED INSTEAD OF EXCESSORY, and these funds hold very large amounts of VERY available money, but NONE of it can by law be designated to go directly to support riders not losing out! None of these funds can, apparently, be used to prevent route cuts or fare increases to the bus and rail systems. If they can, no one in power mentions it. Instead the public loses and loses big on what they need and gains on accessories.
Could the NFTA vote to use special fund capital expenditure money directly to fund public transit, to bring back the routes they cut this year or lower the fares ASAP this or for next year? Does anyone know the answer to that? And why hasn't Washington or Albany made the law flexible so that the mostly dirt poor ridership could be supported instead of abused while we spend millions on Cars On Main Street, technology enhanced bus shelters and Niagara Corridor, or 10-plus brand new rail cars when the old ones were doing just fine? Has anyone in Albany or locally tried? Could the County have supported the NFTA with some funds? Did any of our legislators even think about it?
Finally, I find it unconscionable that The Buffalo News, who had people at the meeting, did not report on either of these very controversial issues in its article a day or so after the meeting. If issues like these were righteously covered by our media, the public would find out early enough to have much more of a voice in the matter, instead of finding out when controversial plans like these are set and more difficult to stop.
The NFTA's use of natural gas, if implemented, could make it more difficult to make fracking illegal in New York State.