The problem with choosing between downtown Buffalo and the Central Terminal as the location for a new train station is that each site holds advantages that may be sacrificed if the other is selected. Whatever the benefits of any decision, something valuable could be lost.
Nevertheless, there are ways to distinguish between the locations and, after evaluation, they suggest that a downtown site adjacent to Canalside would be the best choice, preferable to both the Central Terminal and within Canalside, itself.
The Canalside option is comparatively easy to reject. Building there would be more costly than to do so a few hundred yards east. And, more fundamentally, this public gathering space, built for recreation and enjoyment, is simply not the place for a train station. It’s not the best use of that land. Buffalo should keep Canalside as a place to savor the city’s waterfront, not to disgorge or embark passengers.
More difficult is the decision between the Central Terminal and locations near the existing station on Exchange Street. In the end, though, it comes down to the likely immediate impact and the prospects for future benefits.
Among the arguments for building the station where the trains used to arrive – the Central Terminal – is that investment there could help to ignite development in the area around its East Side neighborhood. It’s possible, but frankly, it seems doubtful.
First of all, few people actually use the train daily, fewer than a couple dozen on average. That could have some impact on the East Side, if it prompted more investment in the terminal and if that, in turn, leveraged additional interest.
But to expect that outcome turns economic development theory on its head. People produce investment. Downtown housing is thriving because people want to be there. It wasn’t a build-it-and-they-will-come proposition.
It’s true that development of Canalside helped create that interest in downtown, but a waterfront near the city’s core is a different attraction from a distressed neighborhood outside the city center, and one in far worse shape than it was when the last trains left the terminal 38 years ago. What has changed in the meantime that would make that location desirable for Amtrak or other operators?
It’s hard to judge the impact of a handful of passengers in any district, but the fact is they will be better served in the city center, where more services and transportation options await them. What is more, given the likelihood that a new football stadium will someday be built in downtown Buffalo, it will be important for out-of-town fans to be able to arrive near the stadium, increasing their convenience while alleviating the crush of automobiles that would otherwise crowd into downtown Buffalo.
It’s also significant that Tim Tielman favors a downtown train station. Tielman is one of Buffalo’s most influential preservationists and an ardent supporter of revitalizing the Central Terminal. While he remains committed to finding a reuse for the sprawling art deco building, he doesn’t see it as the right fit for a new train station.
“It’s a beautiful building and means a lot to the East Side,” he told The Buffalo News last year, “but there is simply not enough traffic for it to profitably be a train station.” Downtown, though, with its residential and business development, and its population growth, makes more sense, he said, especially for development of an intermodal transit hub, which should be a goal.
Any taxpayer worth his salt is bound to ask why build a train station at all, given the small number of travelers who ride the rails. The hopeful answer is in the possible future development of high-speed rail in the Northeast. The real answer, though, is simply because the state has made $25 million available to begin the work, and we might as well use it and hope that our federal delegation will find additional money to help support the project.
It is possible, of course, that in building a train station downtown, Buffalo will forgo a golden opportunity to revive the Central Terminal and the area around it. But the odds are against that.
The city needs to recommit to the important work of reusing the terminal and reviving that East Side neighborhood, but if the task at hand is placing a train station where a train station makes the most sense, then downtown, near Canalside, is the spot.