Buffalo wants a new train station and the governor says the state is willing to put up $25 million to build a new one. But where?
The panel formed six months ago is expected Thursday to say downtown – not Central Terminal – as the best site, according to several sources close to the Buffalo Train Station Selection Committee.
The recommended site is near the current downtown station on Exchange Street, adjacent to Canalside, and should accommodate bus service, one of the committee’s goals. Close proximity to hotels, restaurants and Metro Rail and other amenities was a deciding factor, sources say.
“When you’re visiting a city, you don’t want to be left off in the middle of nowhere and then have to find your way to the hotels or restaurants or sports venues, or whatever it is you’re connecting to,” said Wende Mix, who has a doctorate in transportation engineering and is on the faculty at SUNY Buffalo State. “It makes more sense to have it centrally located where all those activities are,” she said.
The choice will please those who believe a downtown location is the most obvious and sensible choice. But it comes as a crushing setback for those who favor the Central Terminal, where trains operated for 50 years until 1979.
Supporters see rejuvenating the beloved, art deco building on the National Register of Historic Places as a key to resuscitating the East Side neighborhood around it.
The new station is expected to be built close to or across from the current building. It’s also expected to accommodate intercity and local bus service.
One proposal would have people get on and off trains by the current station, while another would involve an overpass to take passengers to the other side of the tracks to board. Both would use the current station’s parking lot for intercity buses.
Another proposal, envisioned by Campaign for Greater Buffalo, would put the station on the south side of the tracks, with the platform covered to Washington Street, using the roof as a visual guide for passengers. A transit plaza for local buses would be located between Washington and Main streets, with intercity buses also using the current station’s parking lot.
All three proposals would require rebuilding and extending the existing platform that runs between Washington Street and Michigan Avenue.
Those who support the Central Terminal say it’s time for the building and the Broadway-Fillmore area to get help, too. Their passion and numbers suggest it’s possible something could also be announced for the Central Terminal when the committee announces its downtown recommendation.
A statement from the committee could be forthcoming in support of a train stop at the Central Terminal, in addition to the downtown station, if, for instance, redevelopment gets underway.
Or, there could be money from the state’s Buffalo Billion II economic program, either to help restore the building or perhaps to pay for the Urban Land Institute to develop a long-term plan. The institute did that for the Richardson Olmsted Complex.
Rep. Brian Higgins, however, was in no mood on Wednesday to consider anything for the Central Terminal other than a train station.
The congressman has been blasting the committee, which he is a member of, by calling into question its integrity and that of the engineering consultant hired by the state Department of Transportation to evaluate potential site locations. Several other politicians, including Fillmore Council Member David Franczyk and Comptroller Mark Schroeder, have also called the process into question.
On Wednesday, Higgins sent a letter to Mayor Byron W. Brown, who chairs the Buffalo Train Station Site Selection Committee, and Robert Shibley, the facilitator. He urged that the Thursday morning meeting – now closed to the public – be opened to everyone, and questioned why no public comments have been sent to committee members since Jan. 19.
“I think the fix has been in, and the process has been severely flawed,” Higgins said. “If I were the governor and challenged Buffalo to put into place a credible, objective review, I would be fuming at the people in Buffalo, and asking very hard questions of those people, like what the [heck] happened here?”
Bruce Becker, vice president of operations for the National Association of Railroad Passengers, said politics has gotten in the way.
“The process, which started out with good intentions to involve a wide sector of Buffalo’s citizens, has unfortunately been politicized,” Becker said. “It is unfortunate it has strayed off course, away from the primary focus of a new train station for Buffalo.”
The pursuit of a train station also has highlighted other issues, including the need for dedicated rail lines for passenger trains to improve on-time performance, and a plan to restore the Central Terminal.
Thursday’s decision comes after the committee held a conference call on Nov. 29, and had sit-down meetings on Jan. 19 and Feb. 2. Public hearings were held on Jan. 19 and March 21.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo gave the committee six months to render a decision on where to put the new train station, and unlike Amtrak’s frequent tardiness, it will do so on time.
Given the strong feelings on both sides, it will be made knowing many people will not be on board.