OPINION: Study Claims $35 Million Impact from ‘Discover Niagara’ Shuttle While Tourists Exit Downtown Niagara Falls on “Free” Buses

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Recent glowing reports in the local media about the economic impact of the Discover Niagara shuttle, which conveys tourists out of downtown Niagara Falls to Lewiston and Youngstown, would be more plausible if, instead of discharging passengers at various attractions, the shuttle was dropping off sacks of money.

“Discover Niagara Shuttle drove $35M into local economy,” declared the Gazette on Dec. 4. “Discover Niagara Shuttle driving economic opportunity in Niagara Region” heralded the Lewiston Sentinel a few days later. “With continued growth and investment,” the headline continued, “$35 million impact projected to double over next 3 years.”

Even Congressman Brian Higgins joined in the hype over the Discover Niagara shuttle, stating on his official website that “… operation of the Discover Niagara Shuttle injected $35 million into the Niagara County economy during the 2016 season.”

The upbeat coverage was based on an economic impact study released by the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area, which “sponsors” the Discover Niagara shuttle. The Heritage Area retained Pittsburgh-based consulting firm Tripp Umbach to survey some 310 shuttle passengers and 10 “stakeholders,” plug shuttle ridership and other statistics into a computer model, and arrive at the nice, round $35 million figure.

When it comes to the fare-free Discover Niagara shuttle, here at the Reporter we’ve always enjoyed having what we fondly refer to as, “Fun with Math.”

For example, based on numbers released last year by the National Heritage Area, we calculated that, on average, fewer than 11 riders board the shuttle on its complete 15 stop, 28 mile round trip to Fort Niagara and back (see “‘Discover Niagara’ Shuttle Numbers Disappoint, Ridership, Tourism Impact Fail To Meet Expectations” 7/21/16 Reporter). And since most passengers board and disembark more than once during their trip, and are therefore counted two or three times, even the eleven passenger number is inflated.

“Riders may have been counted twice as they hop on and off again, (Heritage Director and shuttle supervisor Sara) Capen acknowledged,” to the Buffalo News’ Nancy Fischer in a September, 2016 profile of the heavily subsidized ($1 million annually from NYPA, State Parks, Destination Niagara (formerly NTCC), the city of Niagara Falls and the Niagara Greenway) transportation initiative.

It’s unknown what the National Heritage Area paid for the 34-page economic impact study, and they wouldn’t tell the Reporter. Tripp Umbach charges up to $150,000 “for an assignment that requires conducting interviews, analyzing different scenarios or strategic planning,” its CEO told a Pittsburgh newspaper back in 2011. “Critics of economic impact studies say the organizations who commission the studies have a vested interest in using aggressive multipliers in order to inflate their economic impact,” the article went on to say.

It’s in that spirit that we divided the $35 million in purported economic impact for the year 2016, as determined by Tripp Umbach, by the 33,530 shuttle riders, also according to their report, who got on and off during that year, and it works out to an astonishing $1,043.84 of additional tourist spending for each woman, man and child who rides the Discover Niagara shuttle.

If you believe that the Discover Niagara shuttle adds over a thousand dollars to the western Niagara County economy for every tourist who rides it, we have a waterfalls we’d like to sell you.

The study went on to predict that, given projected 20% annual increases in ridership, economic impact is slated to double by the year 2020, to $70 million.

However, it was reported by several of the previously mentioned local media outlets in December that “Almost 70,000” had ridden the shuttle by the end of 2017, presumably based on information supplied by National Heritage.

Stealthily, National Heritage hasn’t released ridership figures for 2017, but since 2016 ridership was 33,530, 2017 couldn’t have been more than 36,470, consistent with the “Almost 70,000” claimed over both years. That’s an 8% increase, not 20% as asserted by crack consulting team Tripp Umbach.

Tripp Umbach spent a great deal of time visiting Niagara County doing research on the Discover Niagara shuttle, as evidenced by its statement that the shuttle is “having a significant impact on local sites and communities, such as Lewistown (sic).”

Lest you think that was a typo: “Many stakeholders think that the Town of Lewistown is the biggest benefactor of the Discover Niagara Shuttle, as Shuttle riders are making the stop at Lewistown and patronizing local shops and businesses.”

It’s indeed fortunate that last month the Niagara Falls City Council, acting on behalf of a city in deep fiscal distress, voted $100,000 to the shuttle so that tourists can patronize “Lewistown” shops and businesses, the shuttle’s “biggest benefactor.”

In fact, according to the Tripp Umbach study, of the “top ten destinations” identified by 310 surveyed riders of the Discover Niagara shuttle, the only downtown Niagara Falls tourist attraction was the Aquarium, if you could call it that. The remainder were the Maid of the Mist, Cave of the Winds, Gorge Discovery Center and Niagara Falls State Park, the Power Vista, Fort Niagara and its State Park, Whirlpool State Park and, last but not least, the “Village of Lewistown.”

We happened upon the shuttle parked at Whirlpool State Park at noon on Wednesday, February 28, months before the start of the tourist season. The driver volunteered the information that the shuttle was transporting Niagara University students from a location on Hyde Park Boulevard to various locations on campus, and he was on lunch break.

In fact, the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area maintains offices on the NU campus. Dr. Thomas A. Chambers, Professor of history at NU, is chairman of the National Heritage board. The majority of the interns at National Heritage are Niagara University students.

We think it’s a great idea that the city of Niagara Falls contributed $100,000 to the Discover Niagara shuttle so that NU students can get a free ride to campus during these chilly winter months.

 

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