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Buffalo left behind as other cities get new train stations

Board an Amtrak train at the station near Albany, and you’ll pass through a comfortable waiting area with natural light streaming through tall windows in a building with a two-story clock tower.

In Schenectady, the next stop on the Empire Service line, travelers will benefit from a new $13 million, four-story depot with a public plaza, restaurant and museum scheduled to open in 2017. ¶ Utica’s century-old Union Station has undergone $10 million restoration work since 2004.

Farther up the rail line in Rochester, a new $30 million train station – with a brick and stone facade and high arched windows – is also expected to open in 2017.

That’s also when a new $28 million station will open in Niagara Falls. ¶ Across New York, new train stations are being built or old ones refurbished along the 319 miles of track between Albany-Rensselaer and Niagara Falls – everywhere, it seems, except downtown Buffalo.

While the station in Depew received over $700,000 in 2012 for a new roof, waiting area, ticket counters and washrooms, noticeably absent in the spending spree is Buffalo’s tiny downtown station on Exchange Street, located in the shadows of an elevated highway.

That could change if local officials get their way.

The Brown administration and Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. want a new underground station at Canalside, where two undeveloped acres sit north of the canal. A station there, officials say, would present a more attractive and safe environment for riders, tie into light rail, and expand the station’s capacity for riders.

“As you go across the state, there have been or are improvements in progress at all of the stations with the exception of Exchange Street,” said Bruce Becker, president of Empire State Passengers Association. “We are thrilled to know that local officials are interested in moving ahead with a new station for downtown Buffalo.”

Discussions on a new train station are expected to come into greater focus as attention at Canalside shifts to the undeveloped parcel.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, called a train station at Canalside a project whose time has come.

“The idea of putting people when they get to Buffalo at Canalside instead of under a decrepit viaduct makes a lot of sense,” Higgins said.

Finding the money

Higgins and others in Congress have succeeded in delivering Federal Railroad Association grants often used in the building of new train stations. The Niagara Falls project received $16.5 millions, and $15 million was spent on the Rochester station.

But the grants are getting harder to come by. Congress has reduced the amount available to $500 million. Smaller-than-usual transportation spending bills in recent years have also increased the competition for dollars. Still, Higgins said he is optimistic more money will be available in the future.

While improved train stations expand ridership capacity, railroad infrastructure is also getting needed attention with projects to improve reliability. That includes improving tracks and eliminating bottlenecks and wait times for freight trains.

Projects include $50 million to update tracks and platforms at the Albany-Rensselaer Station, $91 million to add 17 miles of double tracks between Albany and Schenectady and $23 million to ease congestion and delays around the Syracuse station.

Amtrak has also spent $300 million downstate on land acquisition and preparation for the Gateway tunnel project between New York and New Jersey, in order to relieve track congestion beneath the Hudson River.

A long history

The Exchange Street station, which dates back to 1952, is owned by the City of Buffalo. The tracks are owned by CSX Corp., which operates freight trains. The brick depot serves passengers heading east toward New York City on the Empire Service line and northwest to Toronto on the Maple Leaf line.

Amtrak spokesman Craig Schulz said the publicly funded railroad service would defer to Buffalo and the State of New York – which pays for operating the Empire Service and Maple Leaf lines through New York State – on whether a new station should be built.

“To whatever extent that communities are interested in developing their stations, we are happy to partner with them where it’s appropriate, and in the appropriate way to advance that,” Schulz said.

Exchange Street’s first train station opened in 1848, and continued until Buffalo Central Terminal opened two miles to the east in 1929. That location was chosen because it allowed trains to continue west without having to back up and turn around because of Lake Erie.

An agreement between New York Central Railroad and the City of Buffalo for the Central Terminal’s East Side location required a new building on Exchange Street. But two decades passed before it was built.

The station’s usefulness proved short-lived at first, closing a decade later when service to Niagara Falls ended. The station reopened in 1978 with the return of passenger service to Niagara Falls. The last train left Central Terminal a year later.

Central Terminal role

Becker said he believed a new railroad station in downtown Buffalo would not preclude later rail service at the Central Terminal. But railroad advocates see a future rail stop there likely only if significant private investment revives the vacant East Side art deco station.

Hank Olejniczak, a train enthusiast and former board member of the Central Terminal Restoration Corp., said it makes sense for Central Terminal to be considered first.

“It would be the most beautiful structure and ‘wow factor’ on Amtrak’s run through New York State,” Olejniczak said. “It’s also the only viable stop for all of Amtrak’s trains.”

Olejniczak said the Lake Shore Limited, which runs west to Cleveland and Chicago, is unable to go to the downtown Buffalo station.

“When you add to it the proximity to the airport three or four miles away, it makes the most sense,” he said.

Sam Hoyt championed putting an intermodal station – trains, buses, light rail and taxis – in the basement of the Memorial Auditorium about 10 years ago, when he was an assemblyman and the site’s future was unclear.

Mayor Byron W. Brown called on the waterfront agency a few years ago to put a new train station at Canalside. Brown and Hoyt are boosting that idea now.

Niagara Falls success

They can look to Niagara Falls for some guidance and inspiration, as anticipation builds for the new Niagara Falls International Railway Station and Intermodal Transportation Center.

It’s scheduled to open in two years on Whirlpool Street in the city’s North End. The station will combine a new building and glass atrium with the 1863 Customs House.

An Underground Railroad Interpretive Center and offices for the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection will also be housed there.

“Usually we are the ones trying to play catch-up, but in this case, we managed to get our project moving relatively early on, and now we’re in a position to cheerlead for other projects that will make the rail system far more functional,” Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster said.

“We are huge stakeholders in getting the Buffalo station resolved,” Dyster said. “We have a lot of people visiting Niagara Falls without cars, and they would probably love to have the benefit of visiting Buffalo at Canalside. That benefits us and the whole region.”

The Niagara Falls project began about 15 years ago, when the city used community development funds for an initial planning study. That provided cost estimates and possible locations.

Factors such as track layout and where to locate a border crossing facility that connects New York rail lines with the Canadian system led to a space adjacent to the Whirlpool Bridge.

Funding was both anticipated and “serendipitous,” Dyster said, pointing out that some money came from unexpected places.

“One of the lessons we learned was that you need to get as much of the planning and engineering done as soon as possible, so that if a funding source becomes available that you hadn’t anticipated, you have the opportunity to do so,” Dyster said.

The complexity of the project involved an international border and a building on the National Register of Historic Places.

An additional $15 million was also needed for a new rail bridge over Main Street, demolition and removal of two obsolete rail bridges, track and street reconstruction, and other infrastructure improvements. The work also had to occur without interrupting daily Amtrak service.

“Buffalo won’t face some of the hurdles we faced,” Dyster said.

In the end, about 80 percent of the $43 million price tag for the station and infrastructure improvements was paid for by the federal government, with the city picking up 13 percent and the state 7 percent.

Dyster sees huge benefits for both cities with a new Buffalo station.

“It would be nice for people who don’t commute to have more options,” he said. “It could be someone working in the tourism industry in Niagara Falls coming from Buffalo, or someone from Niagara Falls working at SolarCity. It would help create a closer region.”

Tourists coming to Buffalo would benefit Niagara Falls if they extended their stays.

Dyster said an attractive train station could help drive more usage.

“The aesthetics of stations tends to drive business, and certainly Amtrak markets them as part of the whole experience,” he said. “A lot of the stations are architecturally significant, or they’re modern, with a lot of care taken with the design.”

More investment

The other train stations along the Empire Service line have seen significant investment, too, with the exception of the Amsterdam station, which received money in 2011 to deal with flooding.

A new $14 million station opened in 1999 in Syracuse. Over $4 million was spent to renovate the century-old Rome station in 2004.

Two other stations, Fort Edward-Glens Falls and Saratoga Springs – used only for the Ethan Allen Express serving Vermont – have been restored in recent years, too.