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Amtrak and Niagara Falls reach agreement on train station

NIAGARA FALLS – The Amtrak Train Station in Niagara Falls is finally official with the announcement on Wednesday that a lease agreement is in place.

The agreement comes four months after the public was invited to a "sneak peak" of the new $43 million station.

[Gallery: A closer look at new Niagara Falls Train Station]

The City of Niagara Falls has come under fire for building a station without the all important lease in place, but Mayor Paul A. Dyster told The Buffalo News on Wednesday that a lot of the hold up was because a lease like this has never been done before.

"The lease is as we expected it and as Amtrak would have expected it to be, but it took a very long time to get it done," said Dyster.

Thomas J. DeSantis, the acting director of planning, said it took 10 years to plan and build the new train station, which makes being a few months behind in construction and settling a lease agreement "barely noticeable."

DeSantis agreed that the lease was held up because the city and Amtrak were not used to negotiating leases of this type.

"There wasn't a model or mold," said DeSantis. "I've always said we would set this up where the costs would be shared by Amtrak."

The Niagara Falls Station is the first new station to open in New York State since Albany-Rensselaer opened in 2002.

The new $43 million Amtrak train station in Niagara Falls. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

The new $43 million Amtrak train station in Niagara Falls. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

The 20-year lease agreement will lease Amtrak 29,360 square feet of the station -- 63 percent of the entire building -- and Amtrak will pay 63 percent of the operating costs, including personnel and maintenance. These payments would be made on a quarterly basis.

Amtrak has also agreed to pay a one-time upfront fee of $50,000, which the city would hold to begin paying for their share of costs. The fee for Amtrak has been estimated at $172,000 a year, but DeSantis said they have no way of knowing the full costs. The 20-year lease has an option to extend the lease for two additional 20-year terms.

The other costs would be shared by the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center Museum, which will lease 2,880 square feet. The museum is expected to open next year. Also, a yet-to-be-determined tenant will lease 4,650 square feet of commercial retail space.

Dyster said they are still looking for a tenant.

DeSantis said construction was completed a week and a half ago and Amtrak can move in anytime. He said he would expect them to begin the move by the end of the month.

[Related: Niagara Falls train station continues to remain empty]

Dyster said the train station is important to Niagara Falls as a tourist city, but also as a border city. He said they have a station that is also  a customs and immigration facility, which made the project more complicated.

"Because we have this station done, now we have this potential for connection to New York, Toronto and all points in between. That potential has now been unlocked for the future," said Dyster.

He said they are also in the enviable position of having no debt on the project because their local share of the project - 10 percent of the costs - was paid for by the city's share of casino revenue.

"We can sit back and cheer on the other improvements to rail lines and control devices that will make this service more and more attractive over time," said Dyster.

He said they will be working through leaders in the federal government on efforts to  move  Canadian Customs to the U.S. side of the border, so that people can check-in like they do at an airport and be cleared to ride to their next stop in Canada. Dyster said they would love to see the Canadian GO Train Service expanded to their side of the border.

The Underground Railroad Museum will be located in the old customs house. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

The Underground Railroad Museum will be located in the old customs house. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Rep. Brian Higgins and Sen. Chuck Schumer both called Amtrak service and the new train station something that is needed for a tourist destination like Niagara Falls.

Schumer said the station will "bring transportation activity and commerce to the city and  lay the groundwork for economic and job growth."

Former Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, who helped to secure $16.5 million in federal funding, called the train station "beautiful" and "impressive" and a tremendous benefit to Niagara Falls and Western New York.

City Council Chairman Andrew Touma called this type of a lease agreement "new territory" for both Amtrak and the city.

Councilman Kenneth Tompkin said to doubters who have dismissed the train station as unneeded or too large, "Like it or not it's our train station. We all need to embrace this station and work together to make it the best it can possibly be. It's a beautiful set up."

"And we own it debt-free," added Touma. "The people I've talked to are proud of the facility."

The City Council will vote on the lease agreement at its next regular meeting at 6 p.m. Monday in City Hall, 745 Main St.

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