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$43 million train station gets ready to open in Niagara Falls

The last-minute touches, like the icing on the cake, are being installed at the Niagara Falls International Railway Station and Transportation Center, a $43 million behemoth between Whirlpool and Main streets at the base of the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge to Canada.

The station is set to open in mid-July, a journey that has been decades in the making.

Some very major last-minute details are still being hammered out, such as the contract with Amtrak. The transportation center’s main tenant is still in lease negotiations with the city. Also, a spacious 4,625-square-foot retail space is still looking for tenants.

But these hurdles are small in comparison to how far the project has come.

Thomas DeSantis, Niagara Falls’ acting director of planning, environment and economic development, feels confident these issues will soon be settled.

DeSantis started working with the city when the project began.

“Seventeen years ago the odyssey began,” he said. “We certainly didn’t know how it was going to be until we got to the end.”

Susan Sherwood, a Wendel Engineer project manager who also has been with the project since the beginning, said, “This is probably the most heavily studied project you will have seen in your life. I think people will be wowed by it.”

Inside the station

A new station is something the city has talked about for nearly 30 years.

The gleaming glass-and-metal building, attached to the renovated, historic 1863 U.S. Customs House/Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Museum, is a far cry from what is currently being offered to passengers.

The current Niagara Falls Amtrak station is located in a converted railroad freight warehouse on Lockport Road that was built in 1959. It became the city’s rail station in 1978, when Amtrak reinstated passenger service to the city, but it was always considered a temporary solution.

Passengers must cross a wide, blacktopped area to reach the train. The station also lies on the outskirts of the city, three miles from the falls and downtown, and about a mile from the Whirlpool Bridge.

Niagara Falls had three busy passenger stations in the beginning of the 20th century, including the New York Central station at Falls and Second streets within sight of the falls, as well as the Erie Railroad station a block away.

New York Central also had its Union Station site at Depot and 10th Avenue, within blocks of the new station. In 1925 10 railroads used Union Station, but by 1964 it had been destroyed by fire and torn down.

Since 1987, Niagara Falls had tried to secure financing to build a new train station.

Restoring the 2½-story U.S. Customs House was the first phase of the project. It will house the Underground Railroad Museum on the first floor and on the second floor there will be the Department of Homeland Security Customs and Border Protection Unit, as well as office/interview rooms and several holding cells.

The historic building has come full circle and looking at the beautifully restored building, it’s hard to imagine the disrepair it was found in when the city proposed buying it.

Sherwood said she remembers a snowy and rainy day in January 2005, crawling over junk in the dank building with crumbling ceilings.

“Now you can look from one end of the building to the other and see Canada through the window,” DeSantis said of the 1,800-square-foot museum. The total Customs House is 9,000 square feet. “We really like the way it’s turned out,” he said.

The Customs House is constructed of native Lewiston limestone. It was built in 1863 and was purchased by the federal government in 1867 for use by U.S. Customs. According to an Amtrak historic profile, from 1908 to 1928 the U.S. Customs House was used as a button factory. U.S. Customs returned and occupied the building until 1962. After that it was used by private owners but was unoccupied when the city purchased it in 2003.

Small local cost

The $43 million was spent over 15 years and the bulk of the funding has been provided through state and federal funds. The local share has been just under $5 million, said DeSantis, who said the city used casino funds for its share.

DeSantis said the city had to redo plans about four times since receiving the first $100,000 grant to study the project in 2000 – including security changes that were prompted by the 9/11 terror attacks.

“The building is secure inside and out. There are cameras 360 degrees around the property, 24 hours a day,” DeSantis said.

In 2010 former Rep. Louise Slaughter secured a $16.5 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant that would allow for the completion of the project.

“That allowed us to build this building,” DeSantis said of the new station. “Up until then we had enough to restore the Customs House, which was just under $3 million and just under $7 million (in the second phase) to upgrade the tracks and railroad bridge over Main Street.

The third and final phase was the work on the train station, which cost approximately $25.6 million. About 87 percent of the costs were picked up by federal and state governments. Groundbreaking for the Customs House began in 2010 and was completed in 2012. Ground was supposed to be broken for the train station that same year, but was delayed two more years. The need to remove contaminated soil was part of the delay. As a result, the price for the work went up. In order to avoid major overruns, the scale of the project was cut. An entrance escalator was removed. A planned statue of Harriet Tubman in the lobby has been delayed. The clock tower was shortened and altered.

Is it too big?

“I think the biggest complaint that we have heard is that ‘You’ve made the project too big and we could have somehow made the project smaller,” DeSantis said. “We could debate that, but I don’t think one of our design goals was to make it as small as possible. But we didn’t try to make it as big as possible.”

Annual ridership at the current Niagara Falls train station was at 31,831 in 2015, according to Amtrak. DeSantis has estimated an increase in ridership to 50,000 per year, but DeSantis said the design is based less on ridership and more on getting people from U.S. Customs at street level to the tracks, which are 25 feet above street level.

“You have to be able to secure a train load of people for customs and inspections and you have to put those people in a secure space,” he said. “That really drove the design. You have to keep some people secure and other people free and still accommodate multiple tenants.”

DeSantis said it is important to design with an eye to the future.

“This is designed for 75 or 100 years in the future, and I’m guessing that long before you get to 50 years, this will seem cramped, in terms of the people going through it,” DeSantis said. “We didn’t build it to accommodate 50 people a day. Our design goal was to accommodate as many people as you can get on a train and as many trains as you can get in a day coming through this city.”

In fact the design for the Underground Railroad Museum is similar.

Space is limited in the museum on the first floor of the Customs House and it is not possible to have busloads of people milling about the train station, so instead there will be a small outdoor amphitheater for people to wait and watch outdoor programs.

DeSantis said the station has to have the capacity to grow and expand in the future, which is also part of the design. He said they are also attempting to have Canadian border patrol officers in the new station so people won’t have to get off the train when they go over the bridge into Canada.

email: nfischer@buffnews.com