By Michael Mottern
Greater Buffalo includes the Town of Tonawanda, which has its own municipal government and a thriving boulevard that leads directly to Niagara Falls.
For years people have been secretly fighting any proposed NFTA [Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority] extension of the metro rail that would lead to an uptick in economic development, however, and are scared of extending the metro rail to deter another “Main Street Effect”, when it comes to keeping local businesses in Tonawanda and the town of Amherst which are right across the street from one another on Niagara Falls Boulevard. The “Main Street Effect” occurred in 1984 when the NFTA metro rail subway made certain that traffic is not allowed to go down a particular stretch of narrow thoroughfare being dug up…
The Buffalo NFTA metro rail system is not old. The current system has been with us since 1984 when it opened and was welcomed by Governor Mario Cuomo. The hope was it would eventually extend further out into the suburbs like Tonawanda and Amherst, maybe even into the South towns. But that project fell short due to costs. Normally, Westchester County chips in for its Metro service, Metro-North directly to Grand Central because it benefits the commuters who otherwise do drive cars, but Erie County does not.
Historically, the people in the town of Tonawanda and the greater Buffalo area have depended upon cars due to their being manipulated by the automobile industry. This is very evident considering it was the automobile industry which tore up the tracks in the original system that had the longest lifespan in Buffalo trolley history, the IRC system (International Railway Company), that had the longest lifespan in trolley history in the Buffalo area including Tonawanda and Kenmore, a village inside Tonawanda.
But that was 1922 through 1950. What the automobile industry did was offer the town of Tonawanda manufacturing jobs at the General Motors plant. Because in Buffalo one could get a job one day and get fired the next day, only to get a really good job in the automobile industry with hours of being fired. That’s what my grandfather went through when he was a young man in the 1950s when jobs were plentiful in Buffalo. The automobile industry ruled the roost burning the trolley cars to be exact and tearing up the tracks! But getting people from one point to another with a great car industry, that is now just a distant memory!
While the number one employer in the Western New York area nowadays is the healthcare insurance industry like Kaleida, back in the day Buffalo’s politicians would give into things like lucrative deals with the automobile industry, not giving a crap about the aesthetics or the job growth that a metro rail system would bring and economic development. The IRC went bankrupt by 1947.The saddest part is the last trolley went down Broadway Avenue in 1950 and was a huge success when it came to “last minute nostalgia.”
Citizens waited minutes to get rides on the old trolley car system from 1922 to 1947. Operators would make personal stops for riders along local routes. In both Buffalo and the Town of Tonawanda, Tonawanda’s Gateway Park which features the Erie Canal, and Buffalo’s Erie Canal commercial slip on the Buffalo waterfront are tourist highlights as well as major resident stops. Both Buffalo and Tonawanda, of course, have Niagara Falls for sightseers.
But that brings us back to Niagara Falls Boulevard and the Main Street Effect. Commercial travelers in Buffalo only travel by car the majority of the time, and don’t want to be inconvenienced in one of the only shopping districts with retail stores like Christmas Tree Shop or Dick’s Sporting Goods. When I was a kid I had to settle for Kmart; I can never get out to Dick’s by streetcar or tram. I hope one day Tonawanda will get out of its small town effect and care about real job growth in the community. Some citizens depend on it for their livelihood, just like commuters and people that work downtown in Buffalo and live in the suburbs. A metro rail is the least they can do!
Michael Mottern is the first vice-chair of SDUSA.