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Robert McCarthy: Train station debate revisits 1927 controversy

Here at the Politics Column, suspicion runs deep that the same arguments guiding 2017’s political discourse also dominated the headlines of 90 years ago.

Take the controversy over a new railroad station for Buffalo. Something new? Not according to buffalohistoryworks.com, which summarizes the downtown versus East Side debate of the late 1920s that now seems oh-so-familiar.

Today, the New York Central Railroad’s case might be favored by Rep. Brian Higgins. Like the rail barons of those days, the congressman believes that resurrecting their magnificent Central Terminal of 1929 will jump-start development on the city’s forlorn East Side.

“Perhaps a more pompous reason for the East Buffalo location was that the New York Central felt that it had the power to pull Buffalo along with it,” the website notes. “The Central hoped that it could encourage downtown merchants to move their locations out to where the new depot would be located.”

But even in 1929, buffalohistoryworks.com says, not even a trolley line ever extended to the Central Terminal.

[Gallery: Faux restoration of the Central Terminal]

It also notes that tucked away on Paderewski Drive almost 3 miles from downtown, the Central Terminal “was never able to achieve the elegant status of a gateway into Buffalo.”

That sounds a lot like what proponents say about a new station near the current Exchange Street facility. Amtrak passengers disembarking there enter the new and gleaming Buffalo. Not so on Paderewski Drive.

Meanwhile, Mayor Byron Brown has not taken a position. But when Higgins, mayoral opponent Mark Schroeder and Council Member David Franczyk all passionately argued for the Central Terminal in his presence a few days ago, their Broadway Market event suddenly transformed into a political extravaganza.

History, however, may also fortify Higgins. Several years ago, he obtained $11 million to transform Ohio Street, a gritty and forlorn thoroughfare that caused many to ask why anyone would even bother.

Indeed, Brown initially demurred. He favored other priorities in Buffalo for such a brimming pot of federal funds, like returning cars to Main Street.

Today Ohio Street shines as a Buffalo gem. It’s lined by parks, historic lighting and signage, and dozens of new apartments and condos sponsored by development giants like Ellicott and Savarino.

Most observers now agree that Higgins’ federal dollars provided the catalyst, just as he believes state funds for the Central Terminal could aid the struggling East Side.

He can make the same argument for money he obtained to transform the Outer Harbor.

The downtowners, meanwhile, offer strong arguments for easy connections to a Metro Rail system that may someday extend to the University at Buffalo’s North Campus.

Now, even more forces are at work. The committee convened by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to recommend a new site for Amtrak trains may also seek relocation of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority’s bus terminal for a truly intermodal facility. That could mean moving the current downtown bus station, maybe NFTA headquarters, too, and unleashing a whole new torrent of political forces.

The NFTA says it has no intention of moving intercity bus operations from its Metropolitan Transportation Center on Ellicott Street. But that same torrent of political forces can move all kinds of obstacles.

Buffalo’s top pols are not at war over this. They agree that powerful arguments guide the sentiment for any of the new station locations under study. Life will go on once a decision is reached.

But it is also interesting to note that a hole that opened last year in the current Exchange Street Station’s roof has sparked all kinds of discussion about how Buffalo will look in the future.

It all underscores what Buffalo political observers already know – politics here is cyclical. The pols argued downtown versus East Side in 1927. They’re scrapping over the same topic in 2017.
Maybe some poor digitally stained wretch will author the Politics Column in 2107, and note that politics around here never really changes.

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