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Metro Rail expansion envisioned to turn DL&W site into waterfront gem

Within just a few weeks, Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority planners will decide exactly how to extend Metro Rail service to the venerable DL&W train shed at the foot of Main Street.

But the first expansion of rail service since the Buffalo system’s completion in 1985 could represent far more than just a new transit stop. It could provide the impetus that developers have long sought to transform the historic rail station into yet another waterfront jewel.

That might include sky bridges into adjacent First Niagara Center, boat docks in the Buffalo River to accommodate yet another transportation mode, or allowing Cobblestone District garages to serve Southtowns commuters seeking rail access to the parking-scarce Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

The federal and state governments will have to pitch in substantial sums to make it all work, but NFTA officials think that what now exists on their drawing boards could happen within three to five years.

“There’s a certain level of excitement on what we’ve done here,” said Thomas R. George, the NFTA’s director of public transit. “We think we’ve captured the opportunities fairly well.”

George and his team have winnowed to two the options for the public and the NFTA’s board of commissioners to consider sometime next month, with both extending service to the terminal and First Niagara Center. The options are:

• A new Alternative A station along the South Park Avenue side of the DL&W costing about $32 million.

• A similar Alternative B along the Buffalo River on the building’s opposite side at about $42 million.

• Both concepts include at least one glass-encased tower along South Park, with the possibility of another at Illinois Street, both serving as “front doors” to the station and the arena.

• Both would feature the idea that the long-abandoned second floor above the Metro Rail yard-and-shops complex could someday be redeveloped.

Although nobody is making official pronouncements, the sentiments of many stakeholders in the planning process are leaning toward Alternative B and the riverside platform. Either approach, but especially the river option with a number of “bells and whistles,” is seen as a way to ferry thousands of daily passengers into the facility while jump-starting development opportunities long envisioned for the almost century-old rail terminal.

The NFTA is approaching the project optimistically, George said, not only for its transportation advantages, but for its potential economic spinoffs, as well.

“As an economic-development project, we feel the cost-benefit ratio will be very attractive,” he said.

In recent years important backers such as Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, have expressed interest in the proposal and indicated federal funding might be possible. Key downtown developers such as Rocco R. Termini have also explored investment at the site, at one time suggesting a public market for the 80,000 square feet of space along with an exterior “patio” on the south end. He likened it to Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market or Union Station in St. Louis.

Termini continues to voice caveats about the need for more “critical mass” in the waterfront area. But he also says he is now intrigued, and that a project five years down the road might arrive at an opportune time.

“It’s a great idea, even if I still don’t know if they’re ready for retail yet,” he said. “I would first develop the Inner Harbor before the DL&W.”

But Termini said the NFTA is on track for future development in the area with its planning process.

“You need to do it now, especially right now when we’re a hot commodity throughout the country,” he said. “And when you’re hot, you’re hot.”

Earlier this year, the explosion of development around Canalside and the Buffalo waterfront prompted authority planners to examine how best to serve the area. Their virtually completed $300,000 transit study conducted by Parsons Brinckerhoff discusses better links to the Amtrak station on Exchange Street, enhancing the role of Metro Rail’s Erie Canal Harbor Station, and eliminating the temporary “special events” station now open only for arena events.

Their Alternative A, or the South Park Avenue plan, would come $10 million cheaper than the Alternative B riverside option. An Alternative A negative includes impact on Metro Rail’s operations and maintenance headquarters on the ground floor of the complex. It also would require a narrower South Park Avenue and a 350-foot-long elevated platform to accommodate a four-car train.

“That starts to chew up real estate,” George said.

The river alternative, meanwhile, would serve a similar function but on the other side of the building. It, too, requires a high-level platform for four-car trains, but would not impact existing Riverwalk trails between the complex and the water. It could create a retail common space, possibly for bike or kayak rental.

That plan comes with disadvantages, too, the study says, including reducing vehicle and equipment storage capacity.

But the option would also “force” access to the DL&W’s second floor via escalators, elevators and stairs on the building’s riverside in order to get to the sky bridge on the other side. The second floor, still set up with track beds and boarding platforms for passenger trains that last departed in 1962, would provide a pathway for foot traffic toward sky bridges into Buffalo Sabres games and other arena events.

“The walkways would involve a significant cost and a benefit to private property owners,” he said, referring to First Niagara Center. “So there are discussions to go with that.”

But new “quality of life” advantages such as a “coatless environment” en route to Sabres games or work would develop.

“If you’re living in an apartment at Summer-Best or near LaSalle,” he said of existing subway stations, “you could go coatless the whole way.”

George also said public hearings to date have featured positive feedback.

“In all of them, we heard, ‘Let’s do something; let’s re-engineer this space,’ ” he added.

Alternative B also provides the means for reaching the second floor, NFTA officials say. Early on, they say, they discounted the possibility of again directing trains onto the second floor because of the $40 million to $50 million price tag for elevated rail approaches.

Project planners are not actively looking too far into the future, but do acknowledge talk of a possible new Buffalo Bills stadium in the area. They say Metro Rail trains could someday continue southward from the DL&W either along South Park Avenue or along the former right of way (still elevated and largely intact) to a potential stadium site.

Once the NFTA staff issues its recommendation, and the authority’s board of commissioners approves, George said, one more hearing will gauge public opinion before more studies identify funding options along with environmental and permit requirements.

But after three decades of status quo along Metro Rail, the NFTA is once again looking forward.

“The arguments are compelling,” George said, “but putting the pieces of the puzzle together will take time.”