Tuesday, May 06, 2008

A mass transit future?

Sunday began just like any other. Wake up. Eat some breakfast. Mow the lawn. Jump online to hash out to critical details for the day.

That's where it all went awry.

The critical details I was looking for was a means to get from A to B – in this case, A being my home in Lockport and B being Dunn Tire Park, home of the Buffalo Bisons.

I knew I could drive, as I've done dozens of times before, but I hated having to pay nearly $10 to park, and frankly, with gas encroaching upon $4 a gallon, the less driving I do, the better. My mind flashed back a couple weeks to a conversation I had with a friend about going to Bisons games. His advice, "take the train in." The Metro Rail, of course, is what he meant.

I'm a small town guy with a big city mindset. I actually love taking the subway in bigger cities. In New York City, my friends follow me blindly onto the subway, knowing that I'll get them where we need to go with time to spare. Washington DC has one of the nicest subway systems I've ever encountered, and when I'm in the District, I use it almost exclusively. But at 33 years old, I'd never taken Metro Rail in my own back yard.

And I still haven't. See, I couldn't – for the life of me – figure out where to get on. For many of you, this seems silly ... or even stupid, I'm sure. What an idiot I must be to not know where to get on the Metro Rail. There's a web site, for Christ sake!

And we loop back to the beginning of the column. The web site. Where it all went awry.

"How hard can it be," I mutter to myself as I typed NFTA.com into my browser just like my radio had told me to do countless times before. And right there on the front page, there's a link, "Going to the Bisons game" or something like that. "This is going to be a piece of cake," I think.

Then ... the hysteria begins.

I end up in an endless loop of information that means absolutely nothing to me. I figure out that I just get off at Seneca Street. And it looks like I want to get on at University Station. So I type those parameters into the "Metro Trip Planner" and am told that it's impossible. Like the guy in "Funny Farm" telling Chevy Chase, "Ya can't get there from here." Look up some more information. Change the parameters. Try try again.

I finally got it figured out. It takes about 20 minutes. I just get on at University Station and get off at Seneca Street. Hop. Skip. Jump. I'm there. Now ... where IS University Station? There's a handy dandy little map that shows that it's somewhere around Kenmore Avenue. So not the University that's close to me, but the other one. Okay. I know where the university is. But WHERE'S THE STATION?

Upset with the web's lack of answers, I call the number on the website ... in vain ... since it's Sunday. Why would anyone answer the phone on Sunday? It's not like people have anywhere to go.

I understand that there are budget constraints and maybe that's why there's no one manning the phones on a Sunday, but it certainly didn't do me any good. I gave up and drove. Paid $8 to park, plus the nearly $4 a gallon. When I would have definitely preferred to take the rail. If only I knew how.

It made me think that Metro Rail is a country club that you have to know the secret handshake to get into – or on, as it were. Sure wish I knew that handshake. But I'm no quitter, so I'll figure it out for next time.

While I'm on the subject, why is Kenmore the last stop for the Metro Rail? Why don't we have a real mass transit system in Western New York? You can't count the buses. I don't want to take an hour and a half to get from Lockport to Buffalo. Why don't we have a rail system outside city limits? They do it in other parts of the country.

Wouldn't it be great if you lived in Medina and could take a train into Buffalo? Or from downtown Buffalo to the Falls? Of course, I'd be thrilled if there were a Lockport stop. It's not like we don't have the infrastructure. There's train tracks all over Western New York, many of them practically dormant. And it's not like it's unprecedented. I'm reminded often of a rail system from downtown to Olcott that existed 100 years ago.

Is the problem money? Can't we fund it? A couple years ago, Congress approved $320 million for a bridge to nowhere in Alaska. Don't we rate to get at least a fraction of that money for the NFTA to build rail stations outside of Buffalo?

Is the problem us? Are we too good to ride mass transit and that's why they don't move forward? I hope that's not the case, but might not be surprised if I found out it was.

Look, the NFTA is a good organization. But it needs to go further. It needs to be better. It needs more details on its website. And more train stations.

In a perfect world, it would have all the above.