The best place for trains to pick up and drop off passengers in Buffalo has challenged planners since the first railroad reached the frontier village back in 1832.
Now similar questions are resurfacing with the temporary closure of Amtrak's downtown Buffalo station on Exchange Street in September following the collapse of its ceiling. City and state officials are weighing a new facility for Canalside, and Rep. Brian Higgins has even floated restoration of the landmark Central Terminal on Buffalo's East Side. Larkinville and Depew also are being talked about.
After Buffalo decides where it wants a modern train station, Sen. Charles E. Schumer says he will push for federal backing. But not until then.
"I will use my clout to get the money, but we need a community consensus where it should be," Schumer said in Buffalo Tuesday. "Come up with a plan of general and broad consensus and I will go to bat for you."
And that is why a mass transit advocacy group is convening a meeting to weigh public opinion on Wednesday night.
"Really, this is about getting the conversation going," said Doug Funke, president of Citizens for Regional Transit. "Everything is on the table."
The meeting is slated for 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County, 742 Delaware Ave.
Crews have been working on the city-owned Exchange Street Station with an eye toward reopening, but the temporary closure has refocused attention on what type of rail facility should serve Buffalo.
Bruce B. Becker, president of the Empire State Passengers Association and a speaker at Wednesday's meeting, pointed out that Amtrak needs an outlying station, such as the current main facility in Depew, to accommodate long distance trains between New York and Chicago.
Buffalo's Central Terminal was established on the East Side back in 1929 for that purpose.
"A Chicago train, realistically, will never be downtown," Becker said. "Central Terminal needs to be considered, and another possibility is Seneca Street near Larkinville. That should be all looked at as part of the study process."
Amtrak, for its part, said in a statement Tuesday evening that the Exchange Street station is closed but service continues.
“As a result of the damage last month and the current condition of the roof, the Buffalo-Exchange Street Station remains closed, but Amtrak train service continues to serve the location on its regular schedule,” the organization said in the statement. “Amtrak is aware of the great progress that the City of Buffalo has made in redeveloping the downtown, and we view our service as an important asset and a major contributing factor to economic development in all of the communities that we serve. Amtrak is working cooperatively with the City and with NYSDOT in order return the building to full use as soon as possible.”
Funke added that while his group has taken no position, it expects a two-station format will continue with any new facility downtown taking on a "commuter" format.
Exchange Street ranks as a relatively minor facility compared to New York stations along Amtrak's Empire Corridor. Though Exchange Street has experienced a 150 percent increase in passengers over the past decade – now about 41,000 – its use ranks significantly below Depew or other upstate stations.
Depew recorded more than 75,000 passengers getting on or off in fiscal 2014-2015. Rochester recorded 94,000; Syracuse, 96,000, and Albany, 746,000. Niagara Falls recorded about 31,000, according to statistics from the state Department of Transportation.
Becker noted the problems at Exchange Street combined with the emergence of a vibrant Canalside district makes this the right time to evaluate all options for Buffalo's passenger rail infrastructure.
Higgins has asked the state Department of Transportation to earmark $1 million to $2 million for a study to determine where a new station should be placed, and he recently led a tour of the Central Terminal to highlight the need for it to be studied as a 21st century alternative. He asked state Transportation Commissioner Matthew J. Driscoll to consider the future use of $25 million budgeted for a Buffalo rail station.
He also urged study of the Canalside location, especially given its potential to serve as a multimodal facility with a direct connection to Metro Rail.
Sam Hoyt, regional president of the Empire State Development Corp. and a longtime rail advocate while serving in the Assembly, noted his father – the late Assemblyman William B. Hoyt – was instrumental in establishing the Exchange Street facility following Central Terminal's closure in 1979.
Hoyt said Tuesday that all potential sites should be evaluated, but also noted that Canalside has dominated discussion of any downtown facility for more than a decade, especially because of its potential connection to Metro Rail.
"This is the perfect time to revisit the concept of intermodal at Canalside," he said.
Mayor Byron W. Brown has also advocated for a new downtown station in recent years. His office did not return a call seeking comment on Tuesday.
Speakers at the Wednesday evening meeting besides Becker include Dan Leonard of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, and Niagara Falls Mayor Paul S. Dyster and Planning Director Tom DeSantis, who will discuss Niagara Falls' recent experience in securing a new station.