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Syracuse bus, train station offers lesson for Buffalo

SYRACUSE - Claudia Rodriguez, a junior at Cazenovia College, 24 miles to the southeast, appreciates this city's combined train and bus station.

"Having trains and buses in the same place is super helpful," Rodriguez said. "Having places to eat - I just got some food - is super good, too."

The benefits of the William F. Walsh Regional Transportation Center - a stone's throw from Destiny USA, the largest mall in New York State - seemed evident for those passing through last week. Travelers waited for a train on one side of the building, while even more, including nearly two dozen Amish, waited for buses on the other side.

The Syracuse station offers lessons for Buffalo as a train study committee that Mayor Byron Brown formed moves closer to picking a station location. The committee is expected to decide by April where to put a new station in Buffalo. The committee just dropped Larkinville as a potential site, citing complications involved in combining both bus and train service there.

Larkinville dropped as potential site for train station

By consolidating train and bus transport, Syracuse found the larger number of passengers led to demand for restaurants, a gift shop and taxis, producing more convenience for riders.

Passengers wait for buses on the other side of the William F. Walsh Regional Transportation Center in Syracuse. (Shweta Gulati/Special to The News)

At the Syracuse station, some travelers passed the time ordering coffee and donuts at Dunkin' Donuts. Others sat with sandwiches and fountain sodas at Subway, while some looked for newspapers, candy and souvenirs at the Great States News shop.

"Almost two decades ago, the William F. Walsh Regional Transportation Center was built to improve the passenger experience with accessibility and connectivity in mind -- uniting Syracuse bus and rail service for the first time since the early 1960s," Amtrak spokesman Mike Tolbert said.

"Since then, customers have shown their approval, evidenced by strong ridership numbers for the last several years."

Tammie Crutcher, a regular Amtrak rider from Chicago, called trains and buses under the same roof a helpful convenience. She was waiting for a bus to Fort Drum, where her son is stationed.

Rebecca Roux, also waiting for a bus, said she, too, appreciated having trains and buses at the same facility. She also mentioned the station's cleanliness.

Jan Lure waits at the William F. Walsh Regional Transportation Center for an Amtrak to New York City Saturday. (Shweta Gulati/Special to The News)

But Roux said that after riding the Texas Eagle train for three days from Austin, Texas, she wished the chairs offered some comfort rather than being made of metal.

"These are not comfortable. I know they're easier to clean, and I understand that, but the longer I sit, the flatter my butt gets," Roux said.

Berla Rodriguez, a sophomore at SUNY Oswego, charged her phone while reading messages. She said the convenience of take-out restaurants made a big difference.

Amtrak ridership

Syracuse's $14 million green-and-beige station, with a center-gabled roof and covered rail platform, replaced a small and out-of-the-way suburban train station in East Syracuse in 1998. Amtrak combined with local bus service and the intercity bus lines Greyhound and Trailways and later, Megabus. A taxi stand provides 11 spaces outside the entrance.

Last year, the eight daily Amtrak trains moved 128,476 passengers, making Syracuse the fifth busiest of New York State's train stops.

Eight Amtrak trains use the William F. Walsh Regional Transportation Center ground travel terminal each day. (Shweta Gulati/Special to The News)

The Depew Amtrak station handled 108,111 travelers. The downtown Buffalo Exchange Street stop had 37,960. Combined, the two stations make Buffalo the state's fourth-busiest city for train travelers, with 146,071, slightly more than Syracuse.

Depew is the only Buffalo Amtrak stop where trains push west to Cleveland and Chicago. But the Dick Road station is also bare-bones and out of the way. The station's strongest advantage is secure parking, something the downtown station does not provide.

The number of Amtrak riders in Syracuse has ebbed and flowed since the station opened. The numbers rose significantly in 2010 to 139,175 travelers. The station reached a high of 155,683 travelers in 2011, before taking a dip in 2016.

Three sites for new Buffalo train station all pose challenges

The increase may have been the result of increased advertising by Amtrak, said Steve Koegel, vice president of communications for Central New York Regional Transportation Authority.

The facility's number of travelers rises significantly when the bus lines are included. Koegel said roughly 350,000 people ride buses annually, bringing the total number of bus and train travelers to nearly 500,000.

"The concept of inter-modal has been a success," Koegel said, noting many of the travelers are students from nearby colleges and universities. "It's a great gateway to bring people into Central New York."

Syracuse surroundings

The Syracuse station is a big improvement, said Gary Prophet, president of Empire State Passengers Association, a volunteer group based in Syracuse that seeks to improve Amtrak and other transit services.

"The Syracuse station is in a more central location," Prophet said.

The previous station wasn't convenient for people coming off the highway, he said.

"This station has retail. It's in walking distance to the Carousel Mall," he said, calling Destiny USA by its previous name. "And it has convenient access to the highway."

Prophet favors a downtown train station in Buffalo for similar reasons -- access to highways and close proximity to hotels, other amenities and local attractions.

The William F. Walsh Regional Transportation Center is located near other places of interest in Syracuse but highway overpasses hide them from sight. (Shweta Gulati/Special to The News)

The Syracuse station sits near local attractions like the mall and NBT Stadium, home of the Syracuse Chiefs, the Triple-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals baseball club. But a visitor on foot would be hard-pressed to know that.

The building is surrounded by a highway overpass and a complex of refrigerated warehouses and food sheds, although some days of the week it's home to a farmers market. The streets - with boulevard-wide roads, as well as unplowed sidewalks during a recent trip-- are not pedestrian-friendly. Signage is poor.

The station is just under a half-mile from Macy's front door at the mall, but the view of the sign is blocked by highway overpasses. There is also no public sidewalk to get there, or a sign that says the mall is straight ahead.

"I made a walk one time from the bus station into the mall, and I was scared," Claudia Rodriguez said. "There was no sidewalk, and the ground was covered with snow. It was super dangerous."

Rodriguez said the nearby mall can be a place for passengers with long waits to visit.

"Especially if your bus gets delayed, or your train gets delayed, Destiny is a nice place to spend your time," Rodriguez said. "There's a movie theater in there, and you could watch a movie or something."

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