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Underground Amtrak station at Canalside is envisioned to replace current Exchange Street site

A small brick train station under an elevated highway has been downtown Buffalo’s welcome mat to Amtrak riders for decades.

Someday, it could be Canalside.

The Brown administration and Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. say they are committed to putting a new train station underground, below an undeveloped parcel north of the canal.

“Instead of getting off at a site that leads you to believe nothing is happening around you, you would now get off at a site where you’re entering what is planned to be a very vibrant area of the City of Buffalo,” said Brendan R. Mehaffy, executive director of the city’s Office of Strategic Planning.

Buffalo ridership at the Exchange Street station in 2014 was 41,220 passengers, a 7.4 percent increase from the previous year and more than double the number from 2004. That pales in comparison to air travel in the region, of course, with a daily average of about 12,840 people flying into and out of Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

But a train station at Canalside – first advocated by Mayor Byron W. Brown before the waterfront agency’s board a few years ago – would boost ridership, Mehaffy said.

“Erie Canal Harbor and the Mayor’s Office are on the same page about exploring the feasibility of putting the train station at the northern end of the site before any other projects are finalized,” Mehaffy said. “If we can get it done, it’s worth the investment in the area.”

Waterfront agency board member Sam Hoyt cited common agreement on a rail station. “A train station has been a part of all of our discussions for what’s been called the northern Aud block,” Hoyt said. “We are in the process of considering the next steps there, and a train station will absolutely be a part of that discussion.”

Hoyt championed a new train station a decade ago as part of a proposed transportation center for buses and taxis, too, under since-demolished Memorial Auditorium. Studies then, he said, showed that a station at Canalside was feasible.

“We did thorough research when I was an assemblyman, and the answer is that the short tunnel under which the track goes underground could accommodate a station. It’s definitely doable,” Hoyt said.

Hoyt, who regularly rode Amtrak between Buffalo and Albany when he served in the Assembly, called a new station long overdue. “You want visitors welcomed by a good first impression,” Hoyt said. “As we have done with Buffalo Niagara International Airport, you are greeted by a beautiful state-of-the-art, well-designed airport. You come by Amtrak, and the message is certainly not that this is a city on the move, a city that is growing, prospering and has turned itself around.”

Hoyt added that “a city with a great rail history like Buffalo, and an international city on the Canadian border, ought to have a train station that is modern, friendly, inviting and gives the user a good first and last impression of Buffalo.”

Such a project would undoubtedly require federal, state and city funds, Hoyt said.

He noted that hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in Canalside in recent years and that putting a new Bills stadium nearby is also a possibility.

“Including a high-quality, intermodal station in the future development of the Aud site makes enormous sense,” Hoyt said. “The Mayor’s Office and Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. agree that if we’re going to do a station in Buffalo, it ought to be at that site.”

Bruce B. Becker, president of the Empire State Passengers Association, agreed that the current station needs replacing.

“We feel Exchange Street is barely adequate, given the increasing ridership out of the station,” Becker said. “Our organization feels adamantly that with the development of downtown and Canalside and HarborCenter, there is a need for a much-improved Amtrak facility serving downtown.”

email: msommer@buffnews.com