State officials and the consultant studying sites for a new Buffalo train station are pushing back against key elements of Rep. Brian Higgins' argument for locating the facility at Central Terminal.
While saying they are not taking sides in the increasingly contentious debate over whether the train station should be at that East Side historic landmark or downtown, state officials and their consultant questioned Higgins' cost estimates showing a Central Terminal location would be cheaper.
And while Higgins has repeatedly said the downtown site for the station could be at Canalside, the consultant said the popular tourist attraction isn't one of the central options anymore because the site there could not accommodate bus traffic. The consultant's preliminary cost estimates show three downtown site options near the current train station on Exchange Street and none at Canalside.
"As part of our contract, we were tasked to assess the various locations for the replacement of the downtown Buffalo train station," said Mark Tytka, area manager and vice president of WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff, the consulting firm preparing a report for a committee that will decide the train station's location next month. "We are down to two locations: downtown and Central Terminal."
Higgins, D-Buffalo, reacted angrily to the pushback -- especially that coming from the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, as well as the State Department of Transportation.
"The Albany bureaucrats are circling the wagons and trying to knock Buffalo down again," Higgins said.
In specific, a Parks department spokesman tried to knock down Higgins' argument that historic preservation tax credits could easily trim $11.8 million from the cost of a train station at Central Terminal.
"While we have not seen the proposal it should be noted that there are very strict requirements and regimented process to score these tax credits," said Randy Simons, the Parks spokesman. "They aren’t guaranteed."
The proposal for returning trains to Central Terminal is a very limited one aimed at serving the 200 or so people who take Amtrak in or out of Buffalo daily, not fully renovating a massive station that served 200 trains daily in its heyday.
Photo gallery: Inside Buffalo's Central Terminal
The design firm hired by the state projected building a rail passenger facility in Central Terminal's North-South concourse, not in the iconic main concourse. The "station within a station" would be similar to the configuration used by Amtrak in Central Terminal in the late 1970s, and would, according to preliminary estimates, cost $68 million to $150 million.
The full renovation of that larger concourse and Central Terminal's office tower are not included in the firm's cost estimates.
"That's to be redeveloped by others," Tytka said. "The scope of our study is to prepare a technical assessment for the potential station locations.”
But Simons indicated that the limited nature of the Central Terminal project could stand in the way of it scoring historic preservation tax credits.
"One cannot segment a project – pick and choose the best/ most useful parts of a historic site to take a credit on," he said.
Higgins disagreed, noting that many historic projects -- such as the Richardson Olmsted Complex and the Darwin Martin House -- had been done in phases and financed in part through historic tax credits.
"When there is a commitment to get projects done, they get done," Higgins said.
Higgins has sharply questioned the consultant's work for the train station committee, arguing that it should have considered that $11.8 million in historic preservation tax credits in its cost estimates. In addition, Higgins said savings of $8 million could be achieved by building fewer elevators and escalators, doing less demolition and cutting back on improvements to the main concourse that the consultant's plan suggests.
The memo Higgins released Thursday put the price of a Central Terminal train station at $29.5 million -- less than half of the lowest estimate in the consultant's figures. Higgins' cost estimate dropped to $17.7 million once he included the 40 percent historic tax credit.
Higgins only included design and construction costs, not the full range of ancillary costs associated with the project. That's the main reason his cost estimate was so much lower than the consultant's.
The consultant's preliminary cost estimates, like virtually all cost estimates for public projects, contain not just the costs for design and construction, but also performance bonds, insurance, permits, overhead and profit, inspection and other costs.
Tytka contended that it's appropriate, and standard among firms such as his, to report all costs associated with construction, not just the construction and design costs.
"They're all pieces of the total cost," he said.
In response, Higgins argued that even if he had included all those ancillary costs, he found enough savings in the consultant's Central Terminal proposal to make it cheaper than a downtown station.
But Higgins' figures would involve building only a train station at Central Terminal, not an intermodal facility that could also handle local and intercity buses. Bus companies and downtown boosters have been arguing for an intermodal facility, saying it would serve far more passengers -- upwards of 1,500 a day instead of just 200 -- and be much more convenient for travelers.
The consultant's cost estimates looked at various options both at Central Terminal and downtown, including a rail-only facility and one that would also include bus service.
A State Department of Transportation spokesperson voiced support for the consultant's work.
"We have full confidence in WSP PB’s ability to fairly, objectively, and accurately complete this study and provide the best possible option for the train station committee and the residents of Western New York," said Tiffany Portzer, the DOT spokesperson.
The consultant's preliminary cost estimates, dated March 26, list three potential sites for a downtown train station:
-- The site of the existing Amtrak station on Exchange Street.
-- A site just west of the existing station, nearer to Washington Street.
-- A site at Washington Street just south of the I-190.
The consultant did not include the Canalside site, signaling that the onetime site of Memorial Auditorium was no longer a strong contender for the project.
Tytka said that because a rail/bus facility would not work on the Canalside site, the firm's upcoming report to the committee studying the train station issue will not include the comprehensive details about Canalside that it will include about the three downtown station configuration options.
The consultant's final report to the committee will be submitted later this month, and the 17-member committee -- which includes several prominent local political leaders -- will then decide on the station's location.
Even though the consultant's cost estimates clearly showed that the downtown options were not at Canalside, Higgins persisted, in a memo released Thursday, in calling the downtown options he criticized "Canalside options."
Asked why, Higgins said: "Because that's what they were considering prior to Thursday."
Tytka said, though, that he's concerned that so much of the public dialogue had been about a Canalside site when in fact downtown sites to the east of Canalside were receiving the most attention in the consultant's work.
"This is a concern of ours," Tytka said. "There is a misconception about the way the downtown location has been portrayed in the community, and we're trying to clarify this. All downtown station configurations make use of and are sited along the existing track used by Amtrak today.”