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Momentum builds for new Buffalo train station

A consensus has emerged among lawmakers that the time has come for a modern train station in Buffalo.

Less clear is where it should be and who will take the lead locally in getting it built.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer has called for a meeting in Washington with local and state government officials and Amtrak officials to discuss moving the project forward. He also said he’s ready to pursue federal dollars once the community decides where it wants a new station.

"I will use my clout to get the money, but we need a community consensus where it should be," Schumer said last week.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, also said he will seek money from Washington.

Schumer and Higgins won’t have to start from scratch. The state Department of Transportation has set aside $25 million for a new Buffalo station.

The locations most often mentioned are at Canalside, in undeveloped land just north of ice skating area, or at Central Terminal, where a developer who’s working on a mixed-use development there has welcomed the return of Amtrak.

Putting a station on Seneca Street, near Larkinville, has also been mentioned. What happens would call into question the future of the Depew station, which currently is the only area station where trains are able to head west to Cleveland and Chicago.

But a number of things have to occur before a station site can be chosen. To begin with, a study would be needed to explore potential sites, since federal money will be involved.

And some entity  – and that could be the City of Buffalo – must be willing to take charge of the process.

Bruce Becker, vice president of operations for the National Association of Railroad passengers, estimated it would take at least five years before a new station opens. The project could cost tens of millions of dollars.

The Amtrak Station on Exchange Street in Buffalo. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The Amtrak Station on Exchange Street in Buffalo. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The latest impetus for a new station came when the Amtrak station on Exchange Street, owned by the City of Buffalo, was closed for a period of time after the roof collapsed in the waiting area. The tiny station, which reopened last week, has long been considered inadequate for the city.

Members of Mayor Byron Brown’s administration and Sam Hoyt, a board member of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., have discussed locating the station at Canalside, north of the canal, just a couple of blocks from the current station.

[Related: Impetus for new train station for Buffalo gains steam]

That would allow visitors a gateway entrance to the waterfront, and to connect with Metro Rail.

On the downside, the tracks’ proximity to the lake prevents trains from heading westbound, only allowing trains  that go to and from Niagara Falls and Toronto. That problem also affects the Exchange Street station.

The Central Terminal has hovered over the East Side without Amtrak or other tenants since 1979. Higgins recently toured the architecturally-acclaimed art deco facility, and he wants it to be part of any study looking at alternatives to the Exchange Street station.

The location is able to accommodate trains headed eastbound, westbound and north into Canada.

“It may not have been possible 15 years ago, but restoration of the Central Terminal is possible in the new Buffalo,” Higgins said recently in announcing the study.

“In the enormous scale of that redevelopment project, it may be possible to carve out a small ‘station-within-a-station’ that would squarely and singularly focus on providing a highly functional train station to meet current and projected needs.”

The Amtrak Station in Depew. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The Amtrak Station in Depew. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

That’s what Canadian developer Harry Stinson wants to see.  He is working on redeveloping the Central Terminal as a mixed-use facility, and wants rail restoration in a portion of the mammoth facility as part of that mix.

“This is the right place for the train station, and we’re offering a free station, essentially,” Stinson said. “What better budget could you offer people? It’s a built train station with tracks. We think it’s the perfect marriage of the space, and the timing is right.”

But Stinson said he also believes downtown needs a station.

“We’re not saying instead of downtown. Downtown has to be part of the overall system,” he said. “It’s in our interest, and everybody’s interest to have downtown and the Central Terminal connected.”

Seneca Street, near Larkin Square, has also been touted as a  potential site for a new train station. Although it’s only a mile from the current station, trains there could head west.

Another idea, advanced by members of the Citizens for Regional Transit, would extend Metro Rail to stations on Seneca Street, by Walden Galleria and the Thruway Mall, and at the Central Terminal.

The group advocates making the Central Terminal the main Buffalo train station, replacing the Depew station, and it wants to see the development of a downtown multimodal transportation center for rail, bus and taxi transit.

Elizabeth Giles, an executive board member, personally favors replacing the Depew station with a Central Terminal location, with an expanded Metro Rail transporting people to and from downtown.

But Giles said there’s still a ways to go before a decision on locating a station can be made. She’s hoping the emerging momentum can be harnessed to get the process moving.

“There’s a lot of passion for the development of a new station,” Giles said. “The process is going to be complex and possibly very time-consuming, so the time to get on it is right now. We need to forge alliances with the powerful, which is already kind of underway, and somebody needs to be in charge of the process. We need some kind of a commissioner of the new train study project to make sure everything stays on track.”

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