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Can downtown handle 60,000 fans?

If a new football stadium is built in downtown Buffalo, getting 60,000 fans to the site will require perfect execution.

There must be a steady march of buses, trains and autos, plus a robust road system, acres of parking and countless tons of food and drink.

Those myriad needs seem unlikely to come together in dense downtown Buffalo. Yet somehow they already do.

Every business day, between 50,000 to 60,000 workers arrive in the city’s main business district. Those who don’t come in by bus or Metro Rail or bicycle find parking. For lunch, workers who don’t brown bag it fortify themselves in diners, restaurants and at food stands.

“We see downtown stadiums in other cities,” said Hal Morse, one of those many downtown workers. Somehow those cities find ways to make their stadiums work, he said.

Morse also is executive director of the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council, the agency responsible for transportation planning in Erie and Niagara counties. He says Buffalo already has a good transportation network capable of getting huge numbers of people in and out of downtown. So to Morse and other local officials, the notion of a downtown football stadium isn’t far-fetched.

A state-paid consultant places three downtown sites on its short-list of potential stadium locations. One is in Buffalo’s historic Cobblestone District. Another, referred to as the South Park site, is south of the Buffalo Creek Casino and near the Buffalo River. The third is between Swan and Exchange streets, near the Pierce-Arrow Museum.

While a downtown stadium has plenty of advocates, including the Buffalo Common Council, any plan to build there would require decision-makers to take stock of infrastructure, highways and mass transit and make them better. The consultant, the Los Angeles-based architectural firm AECOM, recommends tens of million of dollars in improvements to surrounding roads, walkways and rails.

Meanwhile, if a downtown stadium does become reality, fans would have to engineer their own game-day strategies for reaching their seats. A few major options would rise to the top:

Rail possibilities

• The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority: The three proposed downtown sites are within walking distance of Metro Rail, the NFTA-operated light rail line that already delivers thousands of fans to Buffalo Sabres games.

Football crowds, however, are larger than hockey crowds. The consultant predicts that 17,000 to 20,000 Bills fans would use Metro Rail for all or some portion of their journey. Before the game, when fans arrive at staggered intervals, Metro Rail could probably ramp up to serve those numbers. The light rail system, currently under-used, can move 5,000 people an hour with the four-car trains that its underground stations accommodate.

But because post-game crowds tend to leave at the same time, the rail system would be under stress after the final seconds tick away and up to 20,000 people expect rides out at the same time .

That’s why the NFTA buses are critical, said authority spokesman C. Douglas Hartmayer.

“The discussion and the planning needs to be centered around more than Metro Rail,” Hartmayer said, “and the buses can certainly provide the volume and the expediency, and really provide it at a much cheaper cost, than a rail extension or buying rail cars.”

While the NFTA could buy more rail cars, the use of dedicated bus lanes and a signaling system that favors buses would enable a game-day fleet to move more people in a shorter time than the trains, he said. Buses would be especially useful for fans coming from the Southtowns, which Metro Rail does not reach. Park-and-ride lots could be established in Hamburg and elsewhere to ease congestion and efficiently move fans in and out of downtown.

Amtrak: Like Metro Rail, Amtrak’s small station at Exchange Street is within walking distance of the three proposed sites, and the passenger service could carry fans coming from the east or from Toronto if Amtrak scheduled timely game-day service.

“I would come by car or train,” said Susan Gemmett, the head of a Bills Backers chapter in Rochester, when asked how she would travel to a new Bills stadium in downtown Buffalo.

She said the small Rochester train station would probably have to be expanded to accommodate more game-day passengers there, but she would see Amtrak as especially useful in threatening weather.

With a two-and-a-half-hour running time from Syracuse to Buffalo, a train could leave Syracuse at 10 a.m. and reach Buffalo a half-hour before a 1 p.m. kickoff. But at this early stage, it’s difficult to assess Amtrak’s potential in helping fill a downtown stadium, because so many players are involved.

“Amtrak is always willing to look at and consider proposals to operate new or expanded service,” said Craig Schulz, an Amtrak spokesman in New York City.

But he went on to explain that under the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, states are to contribute to the cost of routes of less than 750 miles. CSX, which actually owns the tracks under discussion, would have to sign off on service changes. And if game-day service required an expanded Exchange Street station, the city would have to arrange it, because the city owns the facility.

Parking potential

Buffalo’s parking network: The Central Business District offers some 22,000 publicly available spaces in lots and garages, from as far north as Goodell Street south to First Niagara Center. That doesn’t include street-side parking.

“I think we are ready for a downtown stadium,” says Michael T. Schmand, executive director of Buffalo Place, a not-for-profit that looks to improve the economy and quality of life in downtown Buffalo.

Schmand foresees people walking to a stadium from parking lots even as far north as Goodell Street, or boarding Metro Rail or buses to bring them closer.

In its report, AECOM, noted that some 15,000 spaces can be found within a mile walk of the site between Swan and Exchange streets. Roughly the same can be said of the site in the Cobblestone District. But those parking garages and surface lots would change the tailgating experience from the way it is currently enjoyed outside Ralph Wilson Stadium. Instead of a pregame sea of sizzling burgers, steaming chili, ice coolers and games of touch football, the revelry would, for the most part, be isolated to the parking islands where owners would allow it.

“Tailgating, personally, is not important to me – but it is to a lot of fans,” said Gemmett, the Bills fan from Rochester. “I would hate to lose that for other people who enjoy that kind of experience.”

At one time she surveyed members of her Bills Backers chapter about a downtown stadium and found that sentiment was split, with some favoring the distinct quality of an urban venue with others fearing it would complicate travel and be “especially restrictive to tailgating.”

To Schmand, changing the tailgating regime creates new opportunities. Tailgating is huge in Orchard Park because there are few other ways to gather over food and drink before games there, he said.

With a stadium downtown, Buffalo’s bars and restaurants could meet the needs of many fans on Sundays, similar to the practice in other cities with urban football stadiums, or even in Buffalo when the Sabres play or the city hosts regional NCAA basketball playoffs. Further, he thinks more out-of-town fans would be inclined to stay over at the city’s hotels on Saturday evening, and make the game a weekend experience.

Sites’ pros and cons

Each proposed downtown site has its own pros and cons and laundry list of needs. For example:

• The South Park site: While this location is the farthest from the available parking lots, it also is the largest of the three urban sites being considered. At 122 acres, it is roughly two-thirds the size of the Ralph Wilson Stadium location and offers the best potential for fans to park and tailgate in the facility’s shadow.

But AECOM sees the need to expand Louisiana and Hamburg streets and to widen ramps to and from the I-190. It identified more than $200 million in infrastructure improvements. The priciest is an estimated $140 million project to extend the Metro Rail to South Park and Michigan avenues and build a rail station there.

• The Cobblestone District site: The light rail and the Amtrak station at Exchange Street are close by. And of those 15,000 parking spots within a one-mile radius, 12,000 are within three-quarters of a mile. But it’s also the most constricted and the regular flow of traffic around the site would be disrupted.

Similar to its view of the South Park site, AECOM recommends a short extension of the Metro Rail line, to reach into the Cobblestone District, also new exit ramps to the I-190, better walkways along Michigan and Main streets and perhaps new pedestrian bridges over the Amtrak line. Those projects could reach to $125 million.

• The Exchange Street site: The location uses Exchange Street as its southern boundary and extends north to Swan Street. It also lies between Michigan Street to the west and Chicago Street to the east, and would require the closure of Seneca Street for the length of the site. Further, it would encroach on the Pierce-Arrow Museum which, AECOM notes, could somehow be incorporated into the stadium. But the site also butts up against a residential neighborhood.

AECOM says this site is the best of the three in terms of getting people in and out along the heavily traveled corridors that now link the I-190 to the Kensington Expressway. Still, AECOM sees the need for up to $150 million in transportation improvements, including $75 million for a light rail extension to the Amtrak station.

email: mspina@buffnews.com

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