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Rail extension eyed at redeveloped terminal near arena

It’s possible that someday in the not-too-distant future, Buffalo Sabres fans bound for First Niagara Center could get off Metro Rail trains at a redeveloped Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad Terminal just across the street.

Escalators would take them to the second floor of a vast, bustling terminal with shops and restaurants, where they would cross a skywalk into the arena.

Looking even further into the future, a short Metro Rail extension close to South Park Avenue could provide service to a new Buffalo Bills stadium that now appears on conceptual maps.

The explosion of development around Canalside and the Cobblestone District prompted the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority to commission a study on how the agency should respond.

If the area is to continue to expand, the study concludes, so too must public transportation.

“The need to extend service beyond the DL&W will be required,” said Thomas George, NFTA director of surface transportation. “If one of those opportunities is created, we don’t want to be caught flat-footed.”

Millions of dollars would be needed, and Metro Rail extension optimistically lies three to five years ahead, but rail access opens opportunities for the authority-owned DL&W terminal, NFTA Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel said.

What’s more, it is hoped the transit expansion will encourage developers already expressing interest in the Cobblestone and Canalside areas.

“We are studying how to get to the other side of the DL&W, open up that area and open rail for future expansion,” she said.

The $300,000 transit study conducted by Parsons Brinckerhoff surveyed “stakeholders,” such as many of the developers active in the area, the City of Buffalo, Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., the state Department of Transportation and the Sabres.

The study presented five alternatives for serving the arena neighborhood, but three were discarded because of cost or interference with traffic on South Park Avenue or with Metro Rail operations at its rail yard and shops on the DL&W’s ground floor.

The authority and its consultants settled on two alternatives as worthy of continued study.

One involves a new station on the DL&W’s downtown edge alongside South Park that would minimally affect vehicle and rail traffic.

Another routes Metro trains along the DL&W’s ground floor on the Buffalo River side, where stairs and escalators could connect passengers to any new development on the second floor and possibly to the arena.

It also concludes that Metro Rail’s current Erie Canal Harbor Station – while serving the immediate area well – fails to provide all that will be needed for future development farther down the Metro tracks.

The study examines the entire area, including how to better serve Canalside and how to attract Amtrak passengers from the Exchange Street Station.

Officials of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus proposed a similar plan in 2013 that would involve a Metro Rail extension through the DL&W to a privately built parking garage and transit hub in the Old First Ward. The idea was to serve Southtowns commuters working at the burgeoning Medical Campus.

But NFTA officials say their study involves only existing trackage to Michigan Avenue and does not take into account a short stretch of railroad right-of-way the authority owns south of Michigan.

Minkel said that the possibility of a new Bills stadium in the area did not precipitate the new study as much as the accelerated pace of development at Canalside and the Cobblestone District. But she noted the NFTA was included in stadium studies commissioned by New York State. A public transportation component of any downtown stadium is considered crucial.

But the underused DL&W also lies at the heart of the NFTA study, she noted, calling it “ripe for transit-oriented development.”

Developer Rocco R. Termini, who in the past has expressed interest in redeveloping the old terminal but has also questioned the NFTA’s stewardship, was not surveyed as part of the study.

He said transit would not provide the needed catalyst for the facility as much as the surge of development in the area.

“The reason for development is what’s happening on the periphery,” he said, pointing to the flood of visitors to Canalside this past winter.

Still, Minkel said the NFTA remains excited about at least studying the potential for a relatively short Metro Rail extension that could provide significant benefits.

While the authority is also studying a much more extensive rail expansion from University Station into Amherst, she said the downtown effort remains separate. Both will compete for a limited amount of federal funds available for new starts around the nation, she said, but the authority feels confident enough about the initial data collected to continue the process.

Now, Minkel said, the authority will work toward adopting a preferred alternative later this year and identifying other considerations, such as cost and environmental factors. If the authority decides to continue pursuing the idea, Minkel said it will then enter the “federal process” that could result in Washington money for the project in the years ahead.

“The only thing we’re committed to now is completing the study,” George said.

One of the disqualified proposals was a plan to elevate trains onto the second floor of the DL&W, which still features boarding platforms for passenger trains. Though the existing infrastructure there might prove ideal for Metro Rail trains, Minkel said the additional $40 million to $50 million needed for support structures nixed the idea.

Ditto for ideas to route trains directly through DL&W’s ground floor, or to build a station in the middle of South Park Avenue near the facility – mainly because of the effect on automobile and rail traffic.

Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo, on Thursday praised the NFTA for preparing for the future needs of the burgeoning Canalside and Cobblestone areas. He also said the authority is correctly recognizing the potential of the DL&W terminal.

“It’s a great example of how the NFTA is becoming a forward-looking organization,” he said. “We need the NFTA to take a seat at the table in the rebirth of Buffalo.”